Like the American protest singers of the 60s, when Oumou Sangare began to challenge the mores of her native Mali in the late 80s, she couched her harsh words in pretty sounds. Over the course of three hypnotic albums Sangare has openly criticized the oppressive traditions of Malian male hegemony, from polygamy to arranged marriage. I'm not sure how nuanced the English translations of her lyrics are, but according to them the title track of her most recent album, Woroton (World Circuit/Nonesuch), warns brides-to-be that "Marriage is a test of endurance because / The bride-price of a mere ten kola nuts turns the bride into a slave." Lines like that have helped endear her to a huge female audience in Africa, where she is one of the biggest stars of the decade, but there's plenty to love about her music even if you can't tell what she's talking about. That's her singing a cappella on the sound track for Beloved, for instance. And on her own albums, over a lattice of repetitive patterns played on electric bass, guitar, and the jittery-sounding ngoni (a small six-stringed harp) and a complement of spare, infectiously syncopated percussion, Sangare calls out in that same deep, rich voice to a pair of chanting backup singers, toying with phrasing and rhythm, accenting a line here with a slope in pitch and driving a word home there with a sudden leap in volume. Over the years she's sought melodic counterpoint from a variety of extra instruments, from violin to a horn section helmed by former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis; for this rare local appearance flutist Abdoulaye Fofona will join her seven-piece ensemble. She'll be showcasing material from the new album she's in the middle of recording back home. Friday, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Christien Jaspers.