In 1989 Oumou Sangare, a young singer from the Wassoulou region of southern Mali, went to the JBZ studio in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire to record her debut album. Except for electric guitar and bass, the line-up was traditional - kamalengoni or 5-string 'youth's harp', karinyang (iron scraper) and violin (substituting the local one-string fiddle). The music they recorded was exactly the kind of music performed by hunters to charm the wild animals and invoke the protecting spirits, but with updated lyrics reflecting the concerns of young women living in African cities today.
The music of Wassoulou, with its funky beat and strong melodies has become increasingly popular in Mali over the last few years. But no one could have foretold the wild success of Oumou Sangare's recording, which within a few months had sold over one hundred thousand copies in West Africa alone - not counting bootlegs. This was Mali's best-selling cassette ever.
And not a drum machine or synthesizer on it! What is the secret of Oumou Sangare's astounding rise to fame? Partly the sheer force and beauty of her voice, and undoubtedly because of her powerful lyrics, which address the problems of young Malian women - torn between the old values of the countryside and the modern ways of city life. But it's also the brilliant arrangement of the typical Wassoulou sound - with its slow-driving rhythm punched out on the bass strings of the harp and its soaring melodies. Moussolou ranks among the best recordings of Malian music of all time.
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