Thursday, January 28, 2010

Catch-Up Post #1: How I Became Oumou Sangare’s Camera Girl for the Night


While during the winter most people hibernate in Chicago because of the menacing cold, summer time in the Windy City is quite the contrary. Chicago is known for its summer festivals and abundance of free outdoor music and particularly for being a hotspot for international music. It’s a difficult decision to choose between going to an African Arts Festival on the Southside, watching a movie outdoors for free with Movies in the Park, taking a dance lesson and concert in Downtown Chicago with Chicago Summer Dance, or having a picnic on the grass at Millennium Park as you watch an international music star. No, I’m not getting paid by the Chicago Tourism Bureau to write this... I just love my city think it’s amazing all the high quality FREE cultural programming that goes down every summer!

So enough about the city... let’s get to the juicy part. After over ten years of absence from the US concert scene, Oumou Sangare, the Malian Songbird of Wassoulou music was going to perform at Millennium Park as part of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affair’s Music Without Borders series.

Who is Oumou?
Well, other than being one of my personal heroes, she is one of the most popular and well-renowned contemporary African divas. She’s known for giving voice to the struggles of Malian and West African women by using the loping rhythms and sweet melodies of Wassoulou music which, coming from the region of Mali south of the Niger river, was originally mystical hunting music sung only by men. Both in her songs and throughout her own life she advocates for women to mobilize, take their lives in their own hands, work hard and be entrepreneurial and is a strident supporter of women’s of freedom of choice in marriage. As if the meaning in these songs isn’t enough, her distinctive piercing voice can give anyone goose bumps, even if you don’t understand the lyrics!
Here is a video of one of her early hits, Bi Furu.


So let’s back to the story. As you might have guessed, I’m kind of obsessed with Oumou, so when I heard that she was going to be performing in Chicago (after jumping for joy), I asked Mike Orlove, the producer of the Music Without Borders series (aka the person who makes so much of the amazing Chicago music programming happen and overall awesome guy) who also happens to be my old boss from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs if I could hang out back stage at the concert.


I won’t lie, I had butterflies in my stomach before meeting her.... I had planned out exactly what I wanted to say to her in French the day before and even wore my pair of gold Fulani earrings because I knew that she wears them as one of her trademarks. Nothing that I did in advance, however, could have prepared me for the evening I was about to have.

After meeting some of the band members, helping translate some things in French (which was really cool!), and watching the sound check, she came out... While I was speaking to one of the band members, she came over to talk to him and greeted me warmly. We shook hands, I introduced myself and told her how happy I was to see her perform for the first time. She thanked me and then complimented my jewelry. Now, for the ladies reading this (I guess guys might do this too but I dunno), you know how happy it makes you when you spend a lot of time and effort choosing an outfit or a certain pair of earrings or whatever that you think will impress somebody and they actually notice it?!?! Well, it was like that but even better because it was an international super star diva noticed! So....through a star-struck grin I asked her in French, “Do you know why I wore these earrings?”. She responded in surprise, “Mais non! Not because you know that I wear them?!?” I nodded and grinned and tried to explain in my nervous excitement how I discovered the beauty of Malian music and culture through her. While I’m sure my French was difficult to decipher in all my nervousness, she must have been able to understand enough because after I was done with my little schpeal, I received not the calm but gracious diva response that I was expecting but a big ‘ole full-on Oumou Sangare HUG!

Oh, but the evening did not end just with my Oumou hug... there is still another twist to the story. After she and the band got all pretty-fied (and boy did they!), they all came out and were about to go on stage. Still giddy from my hug, I was trying to stay out of the way and getting ready to watch the show from my awesome back stage angle... just when I was least expecting it, Oumou, all done up standing six feet tall in her beautiful African bubu, walks over to me and plops her own personal video recorder into my arms. Huuuuh? I was given a 2-minute, way-too-fast-in- French explanation of how to work her camera and of what kind of footage to shoot and then she disappeared on stage into a sea of cheers.

So here I am, left dumbfounded back stage with Oumou Sangare’s large, complicated, expensive personal video camera in arms trying to figure out what just happened. I think to myself.... “Alright... well.... Oumou Sangare wants me to use her personal video camera to record her show from stage... Well, I better just go do it!” So after asking Mike if it’s alright to creep out onto stage I start trying to record the show, all the while repeating to myself the mantra, “I am NOT about to break Oumou Sangare’s video camera!” I recorded about four or five songs from different angles, getting footage of her singing in front of about 3,000 lively Chicago fans before the tape ran out. (It actually happened just in time because the Millennium Park stage security did not approve of the mysterious video girl who was standing on stage). At the end of the day I didn’t break it (thank God!), and while the shots were a bit shaky and blurry at times, all in all I think I did quite a decent job as her impromptu video girl...



At the end of the concert after having watched her playfully engage the crowd, toss a calabash high into the air, and sing like the Songbird she is known to be, I was able to say one final thank you and good bye before leaving her in the dressing room with her ecstatic Chicago Malian contingent.

So... I was Oumou’s camera girl for the night. Why did she choose me to do this? Did we form some sort of special bond? Did she use me for my star-struck enthusiasm? Do I really care? No.....And I don’t really think it’s that deep. It was, however an awesome and inspiring show, an amazing encounter and a refreshing experience. It was great to have my expectations met and exceeded by such a world famous musician. I always had genuine respect and admiration for Oumou Sangare as an artist and now I can say that she’s just a plain old nice person too!

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