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Kate Tuttle

Known as the songbird of Mali, Oumou Sangaré uses a mix of traditional and modern instruments, along with her powerful voice, to update Mali’s renowned Wassoulou sound. Based on music made by hunters, these old songs asked for protection and good fortune in the densely forested Wassoulou region. Sangaré, who says she sings “for the women,” retains much of the original sound—using guitar, kamelen ngoni (a small, harplike stringed instrument), and a variety of percussion instruments. To these she adds lyrics dealing with the status of women in a changing Africa.

“In Africa it’s still men who make all the decisions,” Sangaré says. “It’s time for women to be heard.” Accordingly, one song on her third album, Worotan (1997 describes the outcast status of childless women while others deal with domestic abuse and polygamy She feels very strongly about freedom of choice in marriage as her father ...