Fatoumata Diawara (pronounced JA-WA-RA) came through Washington D.C. recently on her first US tour. I’ve been playing selections from her 2011 album entitled Fatou on my radio show for the past couple of months. Her lyrics are deep and well-written, exploring social issues that matter to Malians especially, but also to people in many other societies. The music is an excellent World Circuit production. Fatou’s sound is totally current, presenting impeccable musicianship, exciting combinations of traditional and modern instruments, and sophisticated arrangements that showcase the integrity of traditional melodies, timbres and rhythms. I was looking forward to meeting Fatoumata in person and see her live stage performance.
Only minutes before the concert kicked off downstairs in the dressing room of The Atlas, Fatoumata spoke with me and cameraman Jackson Mvunganyi (who is the co-host of Voice of America’s radio program Up Front) while putting on her makeup. Her French back-up singer and percussionist sat beside us quietly warming up her vocal chords and fixing her hair. I’d heard contrasting stories about her nationality, so we started with that topic, then moved on to discussion about her transition from actress to singer, and her personal experience with Mali’s tradition of arranged marriage and breaking free from it through theater and music.
Since I am deeply familiar with the region in Mali where Fatoumata comes from, and with it’s older female singers, I wanted to find out how much they influenced her growing up. But first, she continues her thoughts on the problems women face in marriage and the need for a balance of power, citing her song “Bissa” which she composed about the subject.
Here is a sample of her song “Bissa”
Fatoumata’s remarks on the importance of being one’s own source of inspiration were especially significant once she got on The Atlas stage because otherwise, if you didn’t see her live, her overall sound and lyrics don’t fall too far from the tree of Wassoulou tradition. Her voice is remarkably similar to her female predecessors locally known as konow, Bambara for songbirds. The pentatonic melodies and strong yet raspy tone and timbre of Wassolou singers are characteristic of this forested zone in the southwest. The fist major international Wassoulou superstar was Oumou Sangare (also a World Circuit artist) whom Fatoumata refers to as her ‘mom’ in the interview, but Nahawa Doumbia from the same town of Bougouni where Fatoumata is from, and the late Coumba Sidibe were trailblazers in Mali long before. These singers are known for promoting women’s rights in their music. Oumou and Nahawa have been singing about women’s rights for decades. The refrain in “Diya Nyeba” (The One Who I Adore), a cut from Oumou’s cassette Moussoulou originally released in the late 1980s, sings “The boys who love the girls, the girls who love the boys, one should marry them. Their love will last”.
Diya Nyeba by Oumou Sangare
This song was actually created by another singer, Tata Bambo Kouyate, sometime in the 1960′s when Malian women fist started publicly rebelling and speaking out against their traditional system of forced marriage.
And one more generation back, listen to Coumba Sidibe’s message on marriage with “Fouru” (Marriage). The refrain states “marriage is obligatory, but a marriage of love is good.”
Fouru by Coumba Sidibe
Once you see Fatoumata on stage though, she is like no other before her — and I have personally seen all of the aforementioned singers perform so I speak from experience. First of all, she possesses a superb artfulness in playing with the subtle nuances of her tone, vocalizations, trills and expressions. Then, as the following excerpt shows, she allows herself to get completely taken by the spirit of the music with gestures and expressions that seem to embody her commitment to freedom.
Her stage performance and rapport with the audience outdoes her elders as well. At The Atlas, she began the concert standing alone on stage with her acoustic guitar. She sang in a simple manner and barely moved a bone. I wondered if this was actually going to be an exciting show. By the end of the night, by contrast and to the delight of us all, she had completely bewitched the audience with amazing dancing, singing, and flirting with us all. She held the crowd in the palm of her hand, and we gladly followed her every whim and command, singing in Bamabara and dancing Wassoulou steps unashamed (or at least it seemed that way from where I was sitting).
One interesting note is that Fatoumata’s touring band does not include Wassoulou’s iconic kamalen n’goni. The kamalen n’goni (young man’s harp), is the acoustic-electric, six-stringed, plucked harp-lute that gives Wassoulou music of earlier generations its characteristic twangy, funky, pentatonic sound. The instrument is a musical icon in Mali of youth rebellion dating back from the 1960s with its original inventor/player Alata Broulaye and singer, Coumba Sidibe.The duo represented Wassoulou youth and women’s ‘outrageous’ ideas about freedom in love and marriage. Only one song on Fatou (“Kanou”) features the kalamen n’goni. What Fatoumata looses by way of that traditional guitar, however, she gains in that she plays the acoustic. None of her predecessors played any musical instrument beyond the beaded calabashes (filen). Furthermore, Fatoumata adds the incredible element of theatrical performance and full-blown dance. I say “full-blown” because others before her danced here and there during a solo, but the bulk of the dancing was left to the backup singers. Fatoumata doesn’t use backup dancers and she certainly doesn’t need to, as this clip of her performing at the Atlas attests to.
What’s beautiful about Fatoumata, above and beyond the voice, the woman, and the dancing, is that she carries on the torch of tradition from her Wassoulou songbird mothers and aunties. As Fatoumata mentions in her interview, the only real difference in the message is that she gets to it faster, in under 3:00 minutes to be precise. The evolution of women’s freedom in Mali might still be a slow process, but if Fatoumata is a symbol of today’s modern Malian woman, the idea is can be heard loud and clear.