World Circuit, via Nonesuch
At long last we in America can hear what the rest of the world has been raving about. On this, her third international release, Oumou Sangare certainly stakes her claim to being the reigning queen of the music of Wassoulou. It's all the more important because she has done it without sacrificing the inherent groove of her Malian roots. The instrumentation is both modern (electric guitars, bass, horns and keyboards) and ancient (kamalngoni, balafon, flutes and drums are front and center in the mix). The songs are current themes (in her native language) of social order and manners and traditional songs about the world around her, portrayed in music that has very deep roots yet is insistently contemporaneous, arranged to make where they come from as important as what they say.
But at the heart of most great records is something simple and obvious. Here it is the voice of Oumou Sangare, who in any culture would be consider brilliant. Passion tempered with control are the hallmarks of her work as she soars up to the top of her range and them plummets, pulling an earthy growl from her gut. "Denw" pulls are these elements together in a song about the stigma placed on childless women in Malian society. This song of ancient traditions and modern realities is treated with a mournful yet proud vocal, centered around a steady ngoni and bass groove, punctured by modern horn riffs and given a sweet, child-like lit from a violin. It's a subtle masterpiece, and just one of the many impressive piece to be found on the recording.