Oumou Sangare / Seya
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Oumou Sangare
World Circuit (www.worldcircuit.co.uk)

It's been a long time since new music by Mali's Oumou Sangare has been heard outside her home country. There were some never-before-on-CD songs throughout the 2003 release Oumou, which was otherwise a retrospective. Some of those new songs hinted at a different direction for Sangare's wassoulu, a pulsating musical style rooted in Mali's southern forest region and built around acoustic instruments like the kamele ngoni harp. Her first two albums stuck to a largely traditional vibe in which her refined wail of a voice was right at home and her songwriting pulled no punches in establishing an bold, assertive stance that was rare for a woman in Malian society. The 1997 album Worotan (Sangare's last full-length international release) added horns and a bit of Afro-soul to the mix though it retained the tart, sharply defined rhythms and soaring vocals of wassoulu. Sangare spent much of the next decade engaged in business and humanitarian pursuits as fans worldwide eagerly awaited her return to making music on more of a full time basis.

And now that time has come with Sangare's new disc Seya (Joy), recorded mainly in her hometown of Bamako. I dropped a copy into my CD player, and on first listening I was already elated. That voice, which can slip easily from lullaby-like hush to husky seductiveness to spirited blues testimony, has never sounded more nuanced. She immediately sets up a hypnotic call-and-response with her female backing singers that settles comfortably yet mystically into the musical arrangements. Sangare enlisted Mali's Cheikh Tidiane Seck and Massambou Wele Diallo to take her sound to new heights. Songs like "Sounsoumba," "Wele Wele Wintou," "Iyo Djeli" and the title track give an additional funk kick to the rustic wassoulu groove while the likes of "Sukunyali," "Senkele Te Sira" and "Djigui" stick closer to the roots. Then there are tracks - "Koroko" and the reggae-like "Kounadya" among them - that start off firmly entrenched in Mali before moving delightfully off in other directions. Pitching in is a top notch cast of players including drummers Tony Allen and Will Calhoun, Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and sax great Pee Wee Ellis.

This is one of those albums where nearly every small part could be singled out as contributing to the greatness of the whole. Seya is a flat-out fantastic release that is not only Sangare's best to date but an early contender for one of the best for 2009. - Tom Orr

CD available from cdroots.com

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