Oumou Sangare was born in 1968 in Bamako, the capital of Mali and is the leading female star of the Wassoulou sound. This is based on an ancient tradition of hunting rituals mixed with songs about devotion, praise, and harvest played with pentatonic (five-note) melodies.
Sangare most often sings about about love and the importance of freedom of choice in marriage, an issue she feels strongly about because her father had two wives which Sangare thought was a "catastrophe." In 1986, the eighteen-year-old Sangare toured Europe and the Caribbean with a 27-piece troupe, and at 21 she already had a huge hit in the album, Moussoulou (means "women") which sold over 200,000 legal copies in Africa and many more in the illegal pirate cassette trade.
While the incredible success of Moussolou put Oumou firmly on the West African map, it was only after a fortuitous introduction by the legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure in 1991 that UK label World Circuit picked up the rights for the album and began to develop Oumou's international career. Moussolou was given a universally positive reception on its worldwide release and Oumou, pen and inspiration never at rest, set about working on songs for her second album Ko Sira (Marriage Today) recorded in Berlin and released on World Circuit in 1993.
With Ko Sira, Oumou notched up her second best-selling album and consolidated her fame. Back home politicians rushed to associate themselves with her perceptive views on contemporary morality but Oumou remains defiantly non-aligned politically. She received numerous awards in Mali and Ko Sira was voted European World Music album of the Year (1993).
For her third album Worotan (Ten Kola Nuts ... i.e. ... the traditional bride-price in Mali) released in 1996. Oumou worked with Pee Wee Ellis, James Brown's erstwhile horn-man, and Nitin Sawhney, the British Asian guitarist who made an important contribution to the album, especially on the final song 'Djorolen'.
Oumou is a phenomenon in West Africa in that as well as being a great singer and songwriter she is also a social commentator and champion of women's rights (attacking, in particular, polygamy and enforced marriages for young African women) without fear in a part of the world where it is expected that women know their place.