The songbird of Wassalou: Oumou Sangaré’s long-awaited arrival

The Chan Centre has been waiting for Oumou Sangaré for a year and a half. Her concert, originally scheduled for October 2022, was delayed due to visa issues.

She, too, had been waiting for this very moment: to unveil the melodies of her homeland (she raised a flag of Mali in her hand) and to invite us into her world (she kissed the flag and passed it to an audience member in the front row).

“You like African music? That’s good, because we are here.”

It took a lot for her to get here. Music crosses borders, yet we often overlook the lengthy and political journeys it undertakes, especially when bureaucracies and borders come into play.

Sangaré sings in the style of her home region of Wassalou, Mali, as she has since she gained international stardom at age 21. She’s one of the most famous of the “songbirds of Wassalou,” a wave of women who gained popularity for their rich vocals, call-and-response lyrics, bluesy guitar and rhythms of the kamele n’goni, a West African harp akin to the string family of banjos.

“Africa is big. South Africa, North Africa, East Africa ... and where I’m from? I’m from West Africa.”

The roots of Wassalou music stem from the traditional songs of griots, who are West African storytellers, singers, musicians and oral historians.

When Sangaré was forced into an accidental extended stay in Baltimore during the early stages of the pandemic, her isolation inspired the creation of her 2022 album Timbuktu.

On the stage was a bass, guitar, drums, keys, kamele n’goni and two backup singers. The backup singers, dressed simply in black shirts and jeans, moved loosely in sync. They made the music seem social, easy and inviting to dance to, while unleashing harmonies so seamless it was hard to tell who was singing.

Sangare’s voice is huge — bigger than you can imagine listening to her recorded — with a powerful lower range that resonated in parts of my ear that aren’t usually spoken to.

Her voice warmed the rafters. I turned my face up towards it like the sun and it warmed me too. Heat rises, so how could anyone stay seated?

During the ebullient song “Sarama,” her backup singers entreated us with their arms to stand and clap, so we stood in the aisle — until the usher told us if we wanted to dance, we had to stand in the back.

This is always the tension of the Chan — its architecture is dedicated to venerating sound, but the crowd is much slower to welcome it into the smaller churches of their bodies. At the 45 minute mark though, something shifted, and everyone rose.

“I’m going to practice my English with you … Love is life,” Sangaré said, bridging the gaps between us with a truth that needed no translation.