Pioneering Malian singer Oumou Sangare doesn’t put out as many albums as she used to, but she’s never wavered as an advocate for women’s rights in a part of the world where that idea is still considered radical, even taboo, in some circles. Her new album, simply titled Acoustic and streaming at youtube, is a collection new recordings of previously released material, most of it from her unfortunately overproduced 2017 Mogoya album. The resulting sound, recorded live and completely unamplified, is much more traditional, although Sangare’s lyrical content has always been daring, beginning with her first Malian hit in 1989 where she chronicled losing her virginity.
That song, Diaraby Nene is even more spare than the original, set to a spare, loping beat, Sangare joined by backing singers Emma Lamadji and Kandy Guira. The album’s opening number, Kamelemba sets the stage for most of what’s to come, a muted two-chord desert rock vamp with a big crescendo from the bandleader, virtuosically circling ngoni from Brahima “Benogo” Diakité, exuberant guitar from Guimba Kouyaté and a little keening toy organ played by Vincent Taurelle
The organ is a surreal touch in the spiky, shuffling Fadjamou; Sangare’s voice is a tinge huskier than it was thirty years ago, but she hasn’t lost any power. She builds a moodily questionining atmosphere in the syncopated Minata Waraba, while Saa Magn – a requiem for Orchestre National Badema’s Amadou Ba Guindo – has breathtaking fast, delicate guitar work from Kouyaté and spare, twinkling celeste from Taurelle.
Likewise, Kouyaté’s hammer-ons in the anthemic call-and-response of Bena Bena, more somber and circumspect in this version. With its camelwalking groove and sheets of organ, KounKoun is the album’s most hypnotic track. Then Sangare and the band pick up the pace with Djoukourou, its chugging rhythm, flurrying ngoni and guitar.
The band follow a long upward trajectory from sparse airiness in Yere Faga. The album’s most musically adventurous, rhythmically challenging number is Mali Niale. Sangare winds up the album with the pensive title track from Mogoya, Kouyaté adding more than a hint of the baroque. Fans of both older and more guitar-centric Malian music ought to check this out