Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #8 by Stephen McClurg
Oumou Sangaré: Mogoya (2017)
Innovation in pop music seems connected to production rather than musicianship. I hear great sounds and textures sometimes in pop music, but it’s rare I get excited by musical performance. Maybe that’s my own failing in not putting in the listening hours in the genre. Whatever it may be, I’ve been enchanted by not only the production, but also the depth of musical performance on Oumou Sangaré’s recent album Mogoya.
The initial allure was a pop record played by humans. Sangaré’s voice isn’t overproduced or layered in effects. Sometimes it’s bare and raw, yet still melodic. She’s effective and beguiling in any dynamic—understated or soaring—though I do not understand the lyrics. I still enjoy music, especially pop music, with lyrics I can’t understand. Even my elementary school-age children were undaunted by the language barrier. Their reaction to this record was to simply dance.
From what I understand she sings in Wassoulou, the name of the language and region in Mali in which she lives. She has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and is frequently working for and singing about women’s rights. Part of me dismisses needing to know anything about her biography or the lyrics in order to enjoy the music. Another part of me rejoices that she does humanitarian work and is a role model for women in and outside of Mali. Like Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, Sangaré’s music is proof that politics, poetry, and dance do not have to exclude each other. Incidentally, master drummer Tony Allen, who helped create Afrobeat with Fela, appears on Mogoya.
The album opens with the track “Bena bena” and the now iconic sound of Malian acoustic guitar. The other musicians come in together with a bass riff that drives the song–a line that plays off of the rhythmic tensions of a meter based on 3 and 4. Sangaré is also called “The Songbird of Wassalou” and as on many of the tracks, this one highlights her and her fellow singers’ voices.
“Yere Faga” carries an anti-suicide message, according to NPR. The groove and some of the synth sounds are similar to those from the Talking Heads Speaking in Tongues-era. Dark, rolling marimba chords provide an atmosphere punctuated by distorted slide guitar licks.
“Mali niale” is a ballad that is undergirded by polyrhythms, and initial chord changes that are reminiscent of the beginning of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” The similarities end there. The stars here are not surprisingly the choral and solo vocals that are powerful, but still tender enough to make the song work as a ballad.
“Kamelemba” features a syncopated bass groove that accents the and-of-2 and the 4 (as a reference, the stereotypical classic country bass plays on the one and three–the BOOMS of the BOOM-chicka rhythm). Like “Fadjamou,” it’s a nice groove-oriented dance track, but like “Mali niale” the vocals are a highlight. The interplay of the choral vocals and Sangaré’s solo voice is one of my favorite performances on the album. Complementing the weaving of the voices is the exchange between the guitar and the n’goni, an African harp with a rustic quality to it used throughout the album (a likely ancestor of the banjo).
“Koun koun,” another ballad, develops throughout the track. The bass line begins with a three note phrase and lots of space over several measures that becomes more complex as the song continues. Again, the n’goni provides a foundation and the drums eventually slide into a double-time feel. It’s a dreamy, low-key track, but one that is far from filler. “Mogoya” is a tender, gorgeous closer featuring strings and synth washes and other abstract electronic sounds that help build the soundscape for the vocals.
Song order matters and care has been taken in organizing this record. The performances and both the attention and restraint of the production team make this an overall exceptional selection of pop music. I intend to dig into Sangaré’s earlier recordings, but I am a little wary given how high the bar is set with Mogoya.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.