Launching the Roundhouse’s In The Round series of concerts (now in its third year), Malian singer Oumou Sangare commanded the substantial stage with grace, poise and authority. Actually not-quite-in-the-round (more a 3/4 circle), these shows offer a combination of relative comfort (the venue becomes all seated), intimacy (no seat is all that far from the stage) and direct energy (the inevitable outpouring of enthusiastic dancing in the set’s final third hardly came as a surprise). The set up is remarkably effective. Although there is a strong line-up throughout the season (including popular crossover jazz acts Portico and GoGo Penguin), it’s hard to see quite how any of the other shows would compete for such sheer life affirming delight.
Sangare is a strident force, personally, politically and musically. She has worked tirelessly to promote the cause of women’s rights and has also achieved success as a businesswoman, helping build her own hotel in Bamako and producing and selling her own cars. Whilst constantly apologising for her English – although no artist should ever have to apologise to an English audience for language skills – Sangare also speaks up against stereotypical portrayal of Africa, telling the audience that the continent is beautiful and “very rich”. She dedicated the shimmering, delightful Minata Waraba to “all the mothers in the world”.
Tonight, Sagare and her relentlessly tight band perform five of the nine tracks from her current album Mogoya. Much has been made of the album’s apparent shift in direction, which saw Sangare working with a.l.b.e.r.t (a French production team who have also worked with Franz Ferdinand). The show tonight actually helps emphasise the connections between the crisp, infectious music and her earlier work that drew more from Wassolou traditions. Diaraby Nene, for example, is given a power boost of driving energy from the band’s rhythm section.
Drummer Jonathan Grandcamp is tremendous throughout, maintaining eye contact with guitarist Guimba Kouyate and bassist Elise Blanchard and offering an impressive level of accuracy and control. Whenever the band also has to launch into one of the frequent dexterous unison lines, it never feels as if this security might be in jeopardy. Kouyate takes the larger share of the solos, often playing with searing intensity, but Abou Diarra is also a forceful presence on Kamele N’goni – an often effects enhanced take on the traditional instrument.
Sangare’s voice is a malleable tool, able to sound subtle, expressive and, at times, incisive and dominant. It is such that it is not difficult to feel the emotional current in these songs as well as the more immediate physical energy in the remarkable grooves. For most of the show, Sangare moves carefully, communicating the songs with genuine clarity to each section of the audience. Often, it feels as if she is singing directly to us all as individuals and this is an impressive skill.
Beyond this, there is intricate and exciting call and response interactions between Sangare and her backing vocalists (Woridio Tounkara and Emma Lamadji), who are rigorously precise in both harmony and rhythm. Sangare’s voice has an impressive dynamic range, which consistently offers thrilling surprises and shifts in intensity, ably matched and supported by the band. The earlier part of the set emphasises her skills with melody and song craft (Bene Bene is particularly hypnotic), while the closing stages celebrate the music’s transporting energy.
The wildly kinetic Fadjamou provides a thrilling conclusion to the main set, showcasing Abou Diarra’s dancing as well as his n’goni skills. Sangare and the band then return to the stage to encore with the timeless and rapturous Yala, over which Sangare takes nearly 20 minutes to introduce not just the band (who more than deserve the lengthy acknowledgements) but also most of her supporting entourage and some special guests in the audience. The latter include Nick Gold from World Circuit records, who offered Sangare her first contract in Europe (“he believed in me when no one else would,” Sangare attests). This final stretch feels like one giant party, celebrating tradition, progress and innovation all at once.