Top 40 Over 40.31: Oumou Sangare’s Massive “Seya”

This album made a big impression on me when it came out in 2009. At the time, I was mostly listening to music on the car radio, and WERS in Boston played it frequently. I wasn’t going to record stores or shows or playing instruments much at that time, though I was writing a lot of lyrics. I liked WERS because they played stuff from the indie rock genre of music that I had been involved with in the ’90’s, but also played music from many other genres. I found a lot of new things through that station back then that helped me let go of keeping a distance from music that, 12 years later, seems like a distant memory. Seya was right at the top of that list, along with Dimanche a Bamako by Amadou et Meriam, who I wrote about near the start of this series of posts.

Cover of Seya album

I was reminded of Seya (“Joy”) recently when I picked up the compilation Senegal 70 from the label Analog Africa on vinyl. As always with that label, there’s a substantial mini-book included with the package that tells the history of the scene the comp documents. My favorite part was an interview with the artist Djilbathen Sambou, who did the art for albums on the Syllart label that many of the tracks on Senegal 70 come from. There’s an interview with him where he says his cover for the album Diabar (“Wife”) by the group Gestu de Dakar was intended as a critique of polygamy, which is an issue that Sangare has addressed over the course of her career along with other critiques of patriarchy such as lyrics against child marriage. A look at Syllart’s current website, where you can buy a reissue of Diabar, says that the album was denounced by religious authorities in Senegal when it was released in 1981. Issues of women’s control over their own family lives have been central to Sangare’s public identity from the beginning of her career, in ways that come out of her own experiences in childhood, and let her in for similar public pressures from conservative forces within her own country of Mali. (To be clear – I don’t want to suggest that the USA, where I live, is more advanced on gender issues than Mali and Senegal just because the forms that patriarchy takes here are different.)

Seya also fits in with the “Comeback” theme of this Top 40 Over 40 series because she recorded it when she was 40 after a 12 year absence from the stage and the scene. While this might seem like a disruption or interruption given how famous she is / was, her activities during that absence say otherwise. She became a successful businesswoman, running a hotel, a farm, and licensed her own brand of cars, the “Oum Sang” brand of 4×4 pickups and SUVs imported from China. In other words, she continued with her theme of the empowerment of women by solidifying an economic base that was sustainable in the long term and allowed her to raise a son and return to music on her own terms – in a business that is typicallly unkind to aging musicians, especially women.

I didn’t know much of those narrative details when I first heard the record. What I heard was an album that was largely – though not entirely – recorded with acoustic instruments but nevertheless sounded MASSIVE. I have read that about 50 musicians played on the album, and it sounds like it. Yet it never sounds crowded or overproduced. At that time, I had been thinking about some of the later Neil Young albums. I thought the electric ones came off poorly compared to the acoustic ones, and theorized that this had something to do with age. Maybe more quiet reflection a la Neil’s Prairie Wind was the way to go if I started recording again. It seemed like a more dignified way to play pop music in middle age. So I started writing sparse acoustic songs like the ones on Spare Parts when I began recording in 2010.

Seya is, like I said, a largely acoustic record, and it is a reflection on many things. It is not, however, a quiet reflection.

It made me rethink how formally ambitious you could be while making a comeback. A lot of that is down to embracing collaboration with other musicians, but not all of it. I went back after I heard Seya and bought her earlier albums, as well as the Oumou compilation. They are comparatively quite sparse, and feature fewer guitars and trap kit style drums, and are incredibly beautiful.

The early stuff is great, but her voice was not diminished when she came back. If anything she sounded even more confident and assertive. It is in complete command of the large ensemble behind her. The relationship of lead singer to the band is mirrored in the band itself: some instruments create a bubbling stew of dialogue with a relatively constant flow of notes while others, such as the violin in my favorite track Iyo Djeli, float intermittently over the majority of the band.

I really loved how the trap kit drums in that particular song stayed out until the song is almost over, a rare structure. It reminded me of a pop song that was popular when I was a kid that I can’t really deny I like despite it’s cheesy cultural / political context: In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins.

I used to work a side hustle while teaching by selling CDs and setting up signs etc for Duke Performances, a concert series on the Duke campus here in Durham. While setting up one night, I asked Aaron Greenwald, the program director, if he could try and book Oumou Sangare next year or the year after. He said he’d love to but that she wasn’t interested in touring the US at that time, having returned to focus on her business career and life in Mali along with periodic shows in Mali and Europe. Too bad. I would have really loved to see her live. Maybe I will get the chance someday.

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