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Oumou Sangare: Singing Her Praises

Oumou Sangare is that rare traditional musician capable of transforming into a modern artist without sacrificing an ounce of authenticity. Seya is her first album of new songs in more than five years, and it's a collection of intricately layered music, buoyant grooves and sage wisdom from one of the most alluring and agile voices in African music today. Sangare established herself in the so-called Wassoulou sound, which draws on the rhythms and folklore of her ancestral home region in southern Mali. On Seya, she reaches out in many directions at once, most notably to neighboring Malian traditions. Her roster of guest musicians, from Pee Wee Ellis (of James Brown fame) to Djelimady Tounkara (maestro guitarist of Bamako's Super Rail Band), is nothing short of awesome. But the proof is in the music.

"Iyo Djeli" is a praise song to Djekani Djeli, "an old and wise griot woman of the 1960s." Griots are hereditary praise singers and instrumentalists, and a genre of musician from which many Wassoulou artists take pains to distance themselves, so it's a show of confidence that Sangare deigns to praise one of the great praisers. The song builds around a deep, slow wooden xylophone (balafon) part that works in a pentatonic scale. No sooner is a loping groove established than wavering Arabic strings ease in, shadowed by a percolating coterie of plucked strings and slapped hand drums. A rich chorus of female voices sets up Sangare's dramatic vocal entry; in a single note, she establishes why she's one of Mali's most beloved singers. Modernity works into the mix, led by ambient electric guitar riffs, and then a punchy brass section hits, led by Pee Wee Ellis himself.

By the end of "Iyo Djeli," Sangare has worked her praising around to a generous reflection on her grandmother and mother, who approved of her choice to become a singer. Meanwhile, the music coalesces in a muscular swirl of brass and strings, with the African ensemble holding the center. The result is a masterpiece of arranging and execution.

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Banning Eyre