Live: Oumou Sangare Brings The Chaleur Africaine To Prospect Park


Oumou Sangare
Celebrate Brooklyn! At Prospect Park Bandshell
Friday, July 29

Better than: A night in the tropics.

The threat of rain was palpable to just about everyone who turned up in Prospect Park to hear Malian star Oumou Sangare on Friday. “Despite what the forecasters say, it’s just a little passing drizzle,” Celebrate Brooklyn! executive producer Jack Walsh wrote on Facebook an hour or so before Sangare was scheduled to hit the stage. The post revealed his thinly veiled desperation at the thought of Afropop’s queen bee playing to a park full of empty seats, but it ended up being both wrong and right: The drizzle turned into a thunderous deluge within minutes of Walsh’s post, but it lasted all of 20 minutes. By the close of opening act Bassam Saba’s set of Arab-inflected chamber pop, the trickle of fans fast became a flood.

So much so that Sangare didn’t mention rain once during her hard-driving set, though admittedly, I might’ve missed the more subtle references to la pluie because my grasp of French, her colonial tongue, is even more limited than her English, which she graciously apologized for. Sangare chose instead to focus on chaleur (heat)—in particular, chaleur Africaine, which she characterized as distinct from its New York equivalent. (Could that explain why she seemed not to break a sweat stalking the stage for over an hour in a resplendent white traditional gown with matching headdress?) Funny thing is, close inspection of Sangare’s band revealed an interesting bit of local flavor: Living Colour drummer Wil Calhoun, Brooklyn-born and Bronx-bred, presided over the set’s well-calibrated thunder from behind the trap set in back, outfitting Sangare’s ultra-tight synthesis of Malian music and soul with just the right mix of stadium-worthy boom.

That may or may not explain why Sangare eschewed ballads for the entire evening, but it’s not as if the crowd missed them. The aisles filled with dancers the moment the band launched into “Kayi Ni Wura,” her customary hello-let’s-get-the-party-started jam. Perhaps fittingly, music from Wassoulou, the region of Mali she comes from, splits the difference between folksiness and funk. In root form it’s built from percussion and a smaller, upstart version of the 12-string kora called a kamel n’goni, all of which which Sangare’s enormous lung power lends Aretha-level authority to. (Franklin can’t claim to have a Range Rover-style vehicle named after her like Sangare does in Mali, though.) The evolution of Sangare’s now-20-year career was perhaps best summed up with the medley that wedded “Diaraby Nene (The Shivers Of Passion)”, a pastoral jaunt from her 1991 debut, Moussolou, and “Senkele Te Sira”, a piece from her most recent disc, Seya, in which the arrangement buzzes with psychedelic guitar fuzz. Though in concert the guitarist stuck to snaky blues fills, Sangare’s catalog of held notes, ululating screams and shouts were all the variety anyone needed.

The more topical aspect of Sangare’s renown, the polygamy-denouncing and dowry-mocking womanism that once made her a controversial figure in Mali, was saved for near the end. “In my country we have marriage by love and marriage by force,” she explained introducing “Wele Wele Wintou (Ring Out The Bells)”, the set’s rousing closer. “This song says, ‘No more marriage by force.'” She performed the tune at a feverish clip that inspired growls and syllabic gymnastics in her native tongue (Bambara), but when Sangare asked the crowd to sing along, any language barrier seemed as distant as the preceding rain.

Critical bias: What’s not to like?

Overheard: “Hell, I’m drenched in sweat anyway, so what’s the difference, really?”

Random notebook dump: Sangare knows how to work a headwrap. When her movements loosened it, she simply draped the open fabric over her head like a mane until she could retie it during one of the instrumental breaks.

Set list:
Kayi Ni Wura
Diaraby Nene/Senkele Te Sira
Soun Soumba
Iyo Djeli
Wele Wele Wintou