She is undoubtedly the best-known Malian on the world music scene. Like the American stars, she has added a second hat by investing in business.
But who is this woman? On the tarmac at Ouagadougou airport, take-off for Bamako is imminent. And the last passenger is finally boarding. A sudden atmosphere breaks the prevailing impatience. Men and women run up to ask for a photo with their smartphones. A star, no doubt. Yes, it’s Oumou Sangaré. The diva of Malian music.
Elegantly dressed in a powerfully embroidered local dress, she exudes a scent of originality. Quite simply, she’s dazzling.
Wearily, the hostess invited the enthusiasts to return to their seats. The photographic fever subsides and the temperature drops. Oumou Sangaré buckles up. But first, she presents her courtesies to her Class A neighbours. With excellent grace, she accepts the interview offered to her. However, she had just returned from a few days of private concerts in Niger and Burkina-Faso. And she was exhausted. But no matter. The appointment was made for the following day.
Oumou Sangaré doesn’t get carried away by success, far from it. She keeps her ego in check. And yet the Malian artist still holds the all-time sales record in her native country. Since her first album at 18, she has sold over one hundred thousand cassettes. For the past thirty years, she has shaken her shoes on the world’s most emblematic stages: the Sydney Opera House, Central Park, the Roskilde Festival, the Essaouira Festival, La Monnaie in Brussels, Queen Elisabeth Hall, all the major festivals in the Netherlands, and so on.
In the service of the women’s cause.
“In Wassoulou, the region I come from, female singers are educators. We sing for a cause. I like to denounce the injustices suffered by women in Mali, Africa and the world”, explains Oumou Sangaré. As her mother’s first daughter, she has painful memories of her childhood. Her father abandoned them at an early age, and the family’s suffering still resonates in her head. “I was edified by the injustice done to African women through my mother. Her life is my source of inspiration”, admits the artist. And her fight is gaining notoriety. In 1998, almost half a thousand Mexican women came to welcome her at the airport, as a sign of gratitude for this female watchdog.
This commitment earned her the title of FAO Goodwill Ambassador in 2003. But before that, it was UNESCO that awarded her a prize in 2001. France made her a Commandeur des Arts et Lettres in 1998. Despite this worldwide recognition, Oumou Sangaré remains faithful to Malian tradition. She is proud of this: “I have remained an African woman. My authenticity lies in the way I dress and the traditional Wassoulou instruments I use. It’s precisely this combination with my voice that makes me original”. Alicia Keys is deeply influenced by this African vein.
The artist is also a successful businesswoman. She has invested in hotels, agriculture and cars. Her car brand, Oumou Sang, has provided many Malians with a comfortable and affordable means of transport. “It’s my way of contributing to the well-being of Malians and reducing youth unemployment”, she explains. But behind this success lies suffering. The artist, mother of an only son, would have liked to be more fulfilled by Providence. “I love children, I’m very happy with them. Sometimes I walk the streets of Bamako to cover the street children”. She has adopted some. This woman is an authentic grace.
Text by Alain Metodjo, Photographs by Holly Whittaker.