Mali-born New York based singer-songwriter Awa Sangho, who will perform at BAM this month, is a rising star on the global music scene. Raised by a grandmother who encouraged her to set her sights high, she has done just that, overcoming hardship and challenges in her youth to find success as a singer, percussionist, and composer. She is a passionate activist for educating young girls and women in West Africa, condemning the practice of female genital mutilation. Her recently released debut solo album, Ala Ta, is a blend of African rhythms and acoustic instrumentation. “Who I am represents Africa, all of Africa,” she says, clearly proud of her self-proclaimed role as cultural ambassador. In her interview in The Global Search for Education, she speaks about her journey as an artist so far, the power of music as a universal language, and why education can “open any door on this earth.”
How has music influenced your life? What does it mean to you? Would you say music means the same to you now as it did earlier in your career?
Music came into my life because I’m a very nostalgic and sensitive person. When I was five years old, I was living with my grandmother, and I missed my mom. So I started singing to ease my pain, and express my yearning. Within a very short period of time, people in the village started gathering around me when I would sing, and offer me treats. It happened very naturally. Later on, during some difficult teenage years, my father—a journalist—introduced me to the members of the Ensemble Koteba Abidjan. I auditioned and became involved with various aspects of their engagements, and soon they started incorporating me fully into their productions. Their shows incorporate rich traditions in Western African music, theater and dance, and provided me with not only an outlet for me artistically, but it also helped me soothe a lot of the angst I was feeling at the time.
“I feel strongly that female circumcision has to stop. We have to look at this issue and ask, what is the real purpose? It is largely an act of suppression in different forms, and at many different levels.” — Awa Sangho
People talk about music as a universal language. Do you think music is an effective medium to engage the masses in positive social change?
Music is the 100% best medicine for sadness and it helps people find more faith in life. And while feeling sad is a very natural thing, for me as a singer, music is the best healer. Music is also a free language, it’s something that everybody can relate to. Regardless of the language, I find that a universal understanding exists in music. At the root of this universality is the energy that performers bring to their audiences…any time I have a show, whether it be in Switzerland, Ireland, Finland etc., the audience feels the energy. They feel like part of me, and I feel part of them. Through this symbiotic relationship, we become a team.
What inspired you to become an activist in educating young West African girls? What has been the most rewarding part of this journey? What lessons would you like to share with others?
Witnessing the pain, suffering, and oppression of many young girls in nearby local villages was traumatizing. I feel strongly that female circumcision has to stop. We have to look at this issue and ask, what is the real purpose? It is largely an act of suppression in different forms, and at many different levels. For example, if a mother doesn’t want to circumcise her daughter, the father will usually force both of them out of the household, which introduces a whole new set of barriers for these women. That’s why I decided to work and create these school programs for girls, their mothers, and boys too. Education is tremendously important, so that women can thrive in societies. Spending my time fighting for women’s rights, and for accessible education is tremendously rewarding. When I am able to help build schools and write songs about the power of education, about the opportunity it creates…that keeps me motivated.
“Education allows you to open any door on this earth.” — Awa Sangho
You have had a rich history in music, including working with companies such as Ensemble Koteba, women-led band Les Go de Koteba, and even your own personal music career. What have been your biggest challenges? How do you stay focused and motivated?
I’m very determined about what I’m doing. I’m inspired by what my mother, and mothers before her went through various social tides. We [women] have to stand up for ourselves, and challenge the ideas and philosophies put forth by politicians and people who are granted automatic power, especially as things are shifting so quickly in my country. Les Go de Koteba (the all-female spin-off of Koteba) essentially distills social issues and the reality of everyday life as a woman.
Since your first solo recording, Alataye Tougnaye “The Truth Belongs To God” (Motema), what can you say you have learned about creating music? What do you hope to work on next?
I have an album out already which was nominated for a Grammy in 2015. And I have a new album that is being mixed right now. My goal is to continue to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to communicate that it’s never too late to do better.
Do you have any advice for young women trying to follow their dreams? What would you advise them and why?
First and foremost, you have to stand up for yourselves. Believe in yourselves and be humble. Never give up, that’s the key. No matter what you want to be, a doctor, a singer…ANYTHING…you have to give yourself the goal, and then you have to pursue it. And again, no matter what, seek out an education. Education allows you to open any door on this earth.
Awa Sangho will perform at BAM – for more information.
(All photos are courtesy of BAM)
C. M. Rubin and Awa Sangho
Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Charles Fadel (U.S.), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.
C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.
Follow C. M. Rubin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@cmrubinworld