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Oumou Sangare
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Who Is She . . .

Honoring Our Straight Sisters Who Are Empowering Our Communities

Oumou Sangare
Oumou Sangare

speaks about women's issues.

One of my favorite African artists, Like all the genuine ‘greats’ of any musical genre one may care to mention, Oumou Sangare owes her position in the West African Hall of Fame to something over and above the ability to sing well. Songwriter, social commentator, champion of women's rights, spokesperson for her generation and her sex, Oumou is more than just a mere 'singer'. She is something closer to a phenomenon because she embodies values and struggles many people care deeply about, because she is an African, and above all, an African woman, who speaks her mind without a trace of fear.

Oumou Sangare was born in 1968 in Bamako, the capital of Mali, her family, though, was from Wassoulou, in the southwestern region of Mali. Sangare is the leading female star of the Wassoulou sound which is based on an ancient tradition of hunting rituals mixed with songs about devotion, praise, and harvest played with pentatonic (five-note) melodies. Wassoulou is typified by a strong Arabic feel along with the sound of the scraping karinyang, women play the fle, a calabash strung with cowrie shells, which they spin and throw into the air in time to the music.

Sangare most often sings about about love and the importance of freedom of choice in marriage, an issue she feels strongly about because her father had two wives which Sangare thought was a "catastrophe." In 1986, the eighteen-year-old Sangare toured Europe and the Caribbean with a 27-piece folkloric troupe, and at 21 she already had a huge hit in the album, Moussoulou (means "women") which sold over 200,00 legal copies and many more in the illegal pirate cassette trade. In 1995 she toured around the world on the Africa Fete tour along with Baaba Maal, Boukman Eksperyans, and Femi Kuti

Banning Eyre traveled with the Voices of Mali tour in December, 2000, and interviewed Oumou Sangare for an article in the June/July 2001 issue of Ms. Magazine. Here are some extended excerpts from that interview.

Banning Eyre: Mali has an unusually strong tradition of women singers. It really stands out. Why do you think that is?

Oumou Sangare: In my opinion it's because women have always been a very powerful force in Malian society. But as the tradition has never wanted them to speak in the men's milieu, never wanted them to express their ideas, she has preferred to sing. Singing takes place at ceremonies when everyone in present. Women, old people, youth. Everyone is there. If there is something very important to discuss, women are not invited. They have no word. But in ceremonies, she can sing. That is the moment when she can release all she has inside. If she had things to say about some important discussion she was not called to, because she is a woman, at the ceremony with everyone present, she can sing and get it all out. That's her chance. Certainly in Wassoulou, it has happened like that. It's a way to release her cares, her problems, her ideas, even about society, everything she wants to say. In her singing, she says all that.

BE: So this is not new.

OS: No, no, no. It's always been like that. This has always been the way that women could speak in public, the only way she can.

BE: And men respect that.

OS: Very much. They listen very attentively. Very, very much. Women educate that way. In singing, women educated other mothers, even children, the entourage, everyone with her singing. She can even council, even old people. I've said that a woman has no words, but a singer does. "Give us a few words. We have that also in our hearts. We want you to show us."

At the ceremonies, you know, in Africa: Everyone is present. So a single woman speaks in the place of all women. You see. So if in the singing there is even one woman in the "milieu," another one has another idea, and she comes. That adds something to her. She asks, "Can I sing?" She says, "Yes, go ahead." So when you stop, someone else takes it up. In Wassoulou, it's like that. You can see two or three women in the middle singing.

BE: Lucy Duran has written that this prominence of women singers in Mali goes beyond Wassoulou. It occurs among the griots, the jelimusow, as well.

OS: It's very interesting. It shows you how strong the women of Mali are. Men are the masters of everything in Africa, music, everything. The men run everything. Even in the area of business, when you look at Malian women--The Malian woman is too brave! She wants to be present everywhere. I think it's her courage that says she must always be there. And this is since well before all this talk of equality. Malian women were always present.

It's true that men are really strong. Very strong. They try to eliminate her, but okay, she tries to advance, works at it. Even in Wassoulou, when the men farm, when they go into the fields, the women work in the houses. Afterwards, she works fast. She sews, in order to then join him in the field and to work as hard as him. She has always been very strong.

BE: It's a paradox, though, isn't it. Women are strong, but they are also denied power and rights.

OS: Yes. This is not to say that Malian women are free or that they don't suffer. No, no, no, no. Far from that. On the contrary, it's true that there are many women who sing in Mali, but when you consider all of Mali, it's minimal. Those who have the courage to go before the public and sing--yes, there are a lot, but in comparison to an entire people, it's minimal. Whereas, those who suffer are very numerous. Me, for example, I come from a family where my mother suffered a lot. I suffered a lot. I saw a terrible childhood. My mother was the first wife but she was not happy at all. Then my father brought other women to the house, and finally he left. We were six: me and four brothers and one sister, and my mother. He left us all in Bamako. He even left Mali and went to Cote D'Ivoire. And there are so many cases like that so it's not that Malian women don't suffer. They suffer very, very, very much. That's why those who have a little power try to speak for those who have no power: "No, no, no, she doesn't deserve to suffer. Free her. Leave her. Give her a chance."

BE: There is also a tradition of songs in Mali that talk about the problems of women. I'm thinking of the song "Furu," which compares marriage to enslavement, and the song "Diarabi," which stands up for love, and presumably against arranged marriages.

OS: What is sure is that there is a tradition in Mali that talks a lot about marriage, but that speaks mostly for marriage, not against marriage. To sing against forced marriage, I'm the first. To sing against polygamy, against arranged marriages, to sing and cry out before the public for everyone to hear, what is sure is that I am the first to do that. But songs sung at marriages, "when you marry, you must accept everything your husband does," that has always been there in Mali. That is the tradition. When the young woman gets married, you sing to calm her and to prepare her morally so that she can stay in the home, even if her husband wants to go out and find three or four wives. That's an old tradition. But to sing against polygamy--no, no, no--that's not old. Not at all.

BE: You have been quite confrontational about these things. I've seen you taunting men in the audience in Bamako.

OS: That's why yesterday I added that it's not a war that I want. We can't force people to do things they don't want to. Everyone is free to do what they want to in life, but we can try to speak, to council, to show the unseemliness that exists in polygamy. I'm better placed to talk about this because I am a victim of it. I can say everything I saw. I show all that, but in peace, not in war. This is polygamy, it is improper. I know that in polygamy, the beginning is good, because the man when he enters into a polygamous marriage, he just wants his pleasure. He sees nothing. But after two or three years, the pleasure leaves. Now the problems start. So pay attention. Choose just one woman for your life. If you want to amuse yourself, amuse yourself, but choose just one woman for your life.

In the beginning, I was maybe a bit too hard, too tough. Because I came to these songs against polygamy with great excitement because I was so agitated against my father, against all men. But now I understand, that's not the way. You have to go gently. You have to show people that it's like this, and this, and this. It's not a war. A war resolves nothing at all.

BE: We have a similar problem with our cultural debates in America. The debate becomes very tough. It becomes a war. People stop listening.

OS: They don't want to listen. That happens in Mali too. People don't like to be forced. If you create a war, there's no dialogue. Dialogue is very important in our social lives. We must speak softly, not fight. That's why we musicians can change many things in Mali, even in Africa. A musician can change more things even than a politician. A politician has his force, and has money. He does things by force. That's why when people listen to music in peace they hear both the music and also the message. It's done in peace and comfort, pretty music, beautiful voices. Then, you can capture people's hearts more easily than in a war.

BE: Have you seen a difference in these areas since you began singing?

OS: Yes. Right away. What I see now is that the Malian woman has begun to have confidence in herself. Before she did not have confidence. She was traumatized by being told, "No, you're just a woman." In the past, women didn't even go to school, because they were just woman. The mentality was, if you send your girl to school, she will become too Westernized (Toubab). She won't accept marriage. All these things prevented women from knowing their rights. Now we see big changes. We have women's organizations that have been created. Women are really motivated in Mali now. There are new schools created just so that young women will go to school. We see many changes, even in the government. There are a lot of women in the government.

BE: Let's talk about a rather sensitive subject. I understand that there is a new compilation of songs sung by Malian singers against this practice. I spoke with an American woman named Susan McLucas who had a hand in organizing that. Where do you stand on this issue?

OS: In 1997, there was a moment when I was called by a group of women in Washington. There were about 300 women in a room. It was a lot of women, and they were there to discuss excision. When I came into the room, they begun the debate right away, and I reacted like the Malians, like the old people. I was furious. I said, "No, no, no, no, no. Dirty laundry is washed in the house. This is really not your problem. You have your own problems. Worry about those." Because for me, excision was not a big deal. It's normal. What I am I follow.

But after I left there, a year later, an Italian group came to Mali to make a film about excision. I was excised when I was a baby. I knew nothing about it. Because this is something that is very, very well hidden in Mali. You say nothing, you see nothing. So when Italian television came, they took a girl of 6 years old, and they cut her in front of me. My tears began to flow. I could not control them. I was trembling at the way this girl suffered, how she cried, how she bled. I was overwhelmed. It was there that my heart was changed. I was angry at everything. To the point where I didn't even want to continue the thing. They said, "No, you must continue. It's good. It's so that the whole world will know."

Even I did not know that it was like that. You don't know. So when I saw that, I said, no, no, that is the worst thing you can do to a woman. It reduces feeling. It prevents women from having children and brings other problems and sickness. I know now why people are so concerned about this. I said, "No, no, no, no. Oumou Sangare, if you really love women, if you really want to do something for women, you cannot accept this." From this day on, I took my stand against excision. Wow, wow, wow, wow!

Even now, there are many people who if you tell them that excision is bad, they will respond to you as I responded before. Now I've understood that those who say it's Europe and the West who complain about this--it's not us--I know what they mean, because I was like that also. It's just that they have seen nothing, they know nothing. They are misinformed. Now I am in an organization that struggles against excision in Mali. We are now figuring out what we can do. In Bamako, the practiced has definitely diminished. If you want to do it, you have to hide or you risk big problems.

BE: I understand that there's a generational divide on this.

OS: Yes, it's the old people who defend it, but they will go. Also in the north. There is no excision in the north.

BE: Where does this practice come from?

OS: I don't even know. Most people think that it is Islam, but it's been well demonstrated that it is not Islam. This is not in the Koran. It's more that women think, "I was excised. I'm going to do it to my daughter." If you don't do it, others in the village will complain. They will say, "No, no, no, no. It's a boy. It's not a girl, because she has not been excised."

BE: I've heard it's really a men's agenda. The idea is that men want to prevent women from enjoying sex so they will remain faithful.

OS: Me too. I think that is why they do it. Because men want to marry four wives, so if women get real pleasure from sex, men can't do that. So to reduce the pleasure of women in sex, they cut them so that they can have up to four. I thing it's just that.

BE: Is this a subject you will ever sing about?

OS: Oh yes. Excision, I will sing about that. You have to find a good manner to do this. But that day, I was sick in the heart. When I saw this girl crying and scratching the earth. She had no power. She was pleading. She said she would give everything she had. And I saw this (sorceress). "You want to eat it, or what? You want to cut? You want to eat the rest?" Oh my god. It was too much. It was horrible to see. Even the film, when Baba [Sallah, Oumou's guitarist] saw that, the tears came. Nobody knew it was like that, because it's so hidden. People are not informed. Nobody could watch that film without crying. It's not possible.

BE: It is difficult, though, when outsiders become involved. You had that reaction yourself at first. Susan McLucas is wrestling with that now. She wants to release her Stop Excision CD internationally, but she is concerned about that perception of foreign meddling in sensitive cultural affairs. What would you advise her to do?

OS: I think she should release it, because it's not just her. It's done with the participation of all these artists. These are Malians. These are Africans. She must release it. Now this is the business of all women. When I brought the problem of polygamy here, I knew that there is very little polygamy here. I knew that, but I wanted other women to help us. Here it is the same. This is why Beijing was done. It was to unite women. When I said, that the dirty laundry must be washed in the house it was because I was too nervous. I was closed off. I was like the old people. I thought this was normal. But it's not like that.

I advise her to release it everywhere in the world, so that young girls who are not yet victims like us can be saved. Because when we want to do something, it is important not to think too much about what will happen afterwards. For example, when I started to sing against polygamy, if I had thought about the women who are polygamous--because nearly all Malian women are polygamous. If I had thought, "The polygamous people, what are they going to think of me? They are going to detest me," I wouldn't have done it. So I think she should release it. She must continue her work. I agree with her. If she wants to contact me, I am completely with her.

BE: Thanks, Oumou. One last question. You sang a great new song in your concert, "Malado." What's that about?

OS: "Ma Lado" means "People of Hospitality." You know that Mali is a very hospitable country. It's a country that really likes foreigners. So it's a song that speaks of Africa generally, a place where strangers are welcome. It says that people who like to receive others among them will always have many friends. You know, that in Africa, dogs don't have much value. So I say, even a dog--if you don't treat it well, when you go and come back, it will treat you as though it didn't know you.

Source:  http://www.afropop.org/multi/interview/ID/7




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