Named for the West African region where it originates, Wassoulou music puts a contemporary spin on the centuries-old work of griots—men and women ordained by birth to be keepers of their communities’ oral history and traditions. The genre is dominated by female performers, none more prominent than the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, who’s been a Wassoulou icon since the release of her 1989 debut, Moussolou. Sangaré’s star has risen not only because of her distinct voice, but how she uses it to advocate unreservedly for women’s rights. On new single “Kamelemba,” from her forthcoming album Mogoya, the Malian singer has smooth-talking men in the crosshairs.
The ngoni, a string instrument in the same musical family as the banjo, is an inextricable feature of Wassoulou; on “Kamelemba” it provides the opening notes and drives the song’s bright, syncopated melody. A steady bassline and piercing synths, orchestrated by French production collective A.l.b.e.r.t., give the track a modern, synthpop flair. Sangaré’s voice drifts above the instruments, slightly muffled in fuzz as if it was sampled from a recently discovered record. The advice she offers is timely—in Wassoulou n’ke, a dialect of the Bambara language—she warns women to be careful of falling in love with vain men who will only bring them down. But far from being a stern admonishment, “Kamelemba” is playful, lighthearted, and ultimately a feel-good dance song. Almost 30 years after her debut album, Sangaré is still every bit the devoted storyteller—and “Kamelemba” proves that a catchy rhythm is still one of the best vessels for received wisdom.