The briefest of percussive rattles kicks off Sounsoumba, giving way to a buzzing balafon ripple supported by the merest shiver of shaker. The band kicks into a dense, bubbling groove as the crack of kit drum heralds a flute that drifts in and out of light, sensuous female harmonies. And then it arrives, that golden, commanding voice confidently moving through the intricately woven instruments, at times a stylish bantering response to the call of the backing singers, at others graceful, almost haughty in the way it glides over shifting rhythms.
Yes, Oumou Sangare's back at last, with her first new international release this century. She’s still not shy of tackling heavy subjects alongside the usual Malian tributes and tales (Sounsoumba calls for more respect for women, the high-tempo Wele Wele Wintou rocks against forced marriages) and still framing those themes in a rich, intense layering of sound (an organic yet markedly contemporary setting realised with unerring clarity by production/arrangement team Nick Gold and Cheikh Tidiane Seck).
Some tracks are delivered in a straight group configuration, whilst containing flavors of Oumou’s Wassoulou roots. The title-track is driven by kit drum and horns, but leaves plenty of space for the entwined acoustic chatter of bolon and ngoni. Elsewhere there are hints of jazziness, notably on Kounadya, where silky backing vocals and Seck's flighty Hammond organ fills rub along agreeably with guest Zoumana Tereta’s earthy soku fiddle and one of Sangare’s more soulful, teasing deliveries.
That track is one of a handful that feature the incongruous sound of a slightly screechy electric guitar buried almost apologetically in the mix. A welcome new element for some maybe, but to this listener it runs against the melodic grain. It’s employed sparingly enough not to spoil matters, and far more in keeping is the cleaner, bluesy electric guitar line and plugged ngoni on Donso, which - with its use of male backing vocalists and a part-talking, part-singing lead vocal delivery - is the most ambitious track on the album. Mogo Kele is the best example of the sparser numbers, a dusty kamele n’goni, acoustic guitar and percussion the only ornamentation required. But Iyo Djeli is where it all comes together most satisfyingly. An undulating Manding rhythm (the Iyo Djeli roll?) is laid out on a bed of strings, the female backing singers a playful counterpoint to Oumou's sonorous, echoing vocal. A punchy horn section (shades of Toumani's Symmetric Orchestra) and ringing plucked guitar are added as the song resolves in a luxurious, swaying instrumental finish; pitch-perfect with everything in the right place.
So, there it is: Oumou’s bravura return, the Songbird of Wassoulou as imperious to behold as ever as she stands proudly above all competition.