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Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
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Oumou Sangare
Female vocalists have dominated Mali's vibrant music scene ever since the West African country gained independence from France in the late 1950s. However, a strict caste system has traditionally limited performance opportunities in most areas to the jalis (or jalimusolu), professional musicians by birthright, whose skill and vision don't necessarily measure up to their surnames.

In singer/songwriter Oumou Sangare's hometown of Wassoulou, a culturally mixed region south of the capital of Bamako, there are no jalis. But her rise to fame was not without its battles. The 1989 release of Sangare's auspicious debut album, Moussolou, challenged the country's patriarchal embrace of polygamy and arranged wedlock. While the men protested, the young women exalted: They'd finally found an artist courageous enough to publicly and powerfully articulate injustice.

Given Sangare's riveting stage presence and frank sensuality -- her first hit song was "Diaraby Nene" ("Love Fever") -- the singer's rep soon spread beyond Mali's borders. In 1996 she gained stateside renown with her most recent release, Warotan, on the eminent Nonesuch imprint. Fresh horn and string arrangements underscore the singer's modern take on tradition, which includes augmenting conventional instruments like djembe (hand drum) and kamalengoni (gut-string harp) with polyrhythmic, megamelodic electric bass, guitar, and percussion. Far from watered-down world-beat disco, Sangare's tunes punch up the passion of the jalimusolu and in so doing transform stunning provincial song forms into an edgy beauty.

-- Sam Prestianni

Oumou Sangare performs Friday, April 9, at 8 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (near Polk), S.F. Tickets are $18; call 885-0750.

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Sam Prestianni

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