The Roundhouse – 31st January 

It only took the subtlest gestures from Oumou Sangaré to completely transform the vibe at her Roundhouse show last week. Embarrassed by her self-perceived lack of English, the Malian singer gently lifted her hand to indicate the audience should rise from their seats. As the band broke into the effervescent shimmy of ‘Djoukourou’, the seventh song in the set, the crowd were now up and dancing, filling the walkways and suddenly contributing to the general joy and abandon that the music had previously instilled.

Perhaps it was a shame that Sangaré didn’t insist on this earlier. Though the fantastic ‘In The Round’ series at the famous Camden venue offers a unique close-up perspective of rootsy global greats, a seated show isn’t really compatible with music as dance-oriented as Sangaré’s sensuous West African grooves. Nevertheless, as her band locked into several cuts from latest album Mogoya, the Songbird of Wassoulou cut a compelling figure. A physical embodiment of her voice – powerful, commanding, radiant – Sangaré fronted a septet of Malian, French and South African musicians as dextrous and intricate as you would expect a woman of her charisma to demand. Two female backing vocalists enhanced the raptuouros triple-harmony vocal refrains of loping funk gems such as ‘Kamelemba’ and set the standard in cutting shapes, often assisted by Abou Diarra, wielding his brightly decorated n’gongi (a kind of kora) in choreographic unison, when he wasn’t weaving its strings to form hectic, hypnotic loops on tracks such as ‘Bena Bena’. The Parisian rhythm section displayed the gamut of soulful dynamics, from gentle lilts coloured with ripples of electric piano, to energising Afrobeat underpinning Guimba Kouyate’s guitar runs, even though the bass in the Roundhouse can evaporate like steam into the cavernous roof of this former rail shed.

Once the audience had begun to express themselves in turn, Sangaré kept them busy with a glorious version of ‘Fadhjamou’, before returning for an encore, during which, over an irresistible groove (‘Yala’), she slowly introduced her soloing band, often pausing to check with French-speaking members of the crowd that she was making sense (there was nothing wrong with her English, in truth), and even thanking her label and tour manager. Just as it seemed we may be in for an Oscars-like roll call of gratitude, the lissom-voiced chanteuse performed another of those gestures for her band to bring it all to a climax and departed the stage while the audience were singing ‘Mali’ and ‘Oumou Sangaré’ in chant-like unison, an exuberant affirmation of an African superstar.

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