Hot on the heels of her debut album Fatou, released in North America in August, Ivorian born, Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara is currently on a North American tour that saw her make a stop at the Michael Schimmel Center in NYC on September 28th.
The word "debut" might be misleading for someone like Fatoumata Diawara, because she’s no stranger to the stage or recording studio. She sang on Oumou Sangare’s Grammy-nominated album Seya as well as the Grammy-winning Red Earth: A Malian Journey by Dee Dee Bridgewater. She also toured internationally with both of them. As a solo artist, she released an EP titled Kanou shortly before Fatou - a splendid album that I can't recommend enough - and both were warmly received by fans and critics alike.
Prior to becoming a musician, she was an accomplished actress as a teenager. Most notably, she starred in La Genèse (Genesis) directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko in 1999, and the wildly popular Sia, The Dream of the Python, directed by Dani Kouyaté in 2001.
Unfortunately, due to mounting pressure from her family's desire for her to settle down and get married, she abandoned her career as an actress. However, in 2002 she had the opportunity to join the Royale de Luxe Theatre Company in France. Defying the wishes of her family, she left for Paris to join Royale de Luxe and toured internationally with the company. She started singing solos during the company’s performances, and began performing in clubs and cafes when not on tour. She eventually met Cheikh Tidiane Seck, who invited her to travel back to Mali to work on the previously mentioned albums by Oumou Sangare and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She then decided to focus on music full-time, and the rest is history.
Now on her first North American tour, with the accolades preceding her - besides the adulation of the critics, she's recently been nominated for a MOBO award for Best African Act - the spotlight is squarely on her, and after her electrifying performance at the Michael Schimmel Center, it’s safe to say that the spotlight is where it ought to be.
The crowd at the concert was a very diverse one. Apart from Americans, there was a heavy contingent of French and Malian people. It was great to see many Africans of other nationalities as well. I chatted with a few of them before the show and it turned out that there were people from Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria. I’m sure there many other nationalities present.
The show started with Diawara taking the stage alone, just a woman and a guitar. Shortly after, her band joined her on stage. It was evident that she wasn’t a run of the mill singer the minute she began singing. Her music is a mix of elements from jazz, pop, funk and Wassoulou, and she sings in Bambara. While that may put audience members who understand the language at an advantage, it doesn't do so by much as the emotive nature of her singing pretty much lays waste to language barriers. This is music you can feel. You know when she’s being serious and you know when she’s being playful. However, even when she's singing about something serious - like female genital mutilation, female empowerment, war or letting your child be raised by someone else - she still manages to convey optimism, hope and the message of a brighter future. In essence, her music is about joy, happiness, and prosperity.
As an African, I’m well aware that we are not monolithic. We are the most diverse people in the world. That said, when it comes to seated concerts, one thing we will refuse to do is sit down. We must dance. Diawara herself asked the seated audience if they wanted to dance with her. They roared with approval. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to dance when urged on by someone like her? She insisted that everyone stand up and move closer to the stage. There was an older gentleman with a cane who put his cane down and moved to the best of his ability. That’s what her music does to you.
Not content with people dancing in front of the stage, Diawara then invited people on to the stage to dance with her, and that they did. Some people moved to the beat, others moved to something else entirely. What that something was, I haven’t the faintest clue, but that’s beside the point. People were having a good time, and ultimately, that is what a concert should be about.
Fatoumata Diawara is a dynamic performer with an amazing stage presence. She’s a great singer, songwriter and dancer. It isn’t mentioned nearly enough, but she’s also a superb guitar player. If you get the opportunity to see her live - and she's touring right through till the middle of next year so there are opportunities aplenty - then by all means do so. You won’t be disappointed.
There are a few North American dates to go, after which the show heads for Europe (Poland, France, UK, Netherlands (dates below) and Germany), before swinging back to North America. Check her MySpace and Facebook events page for all the dates.
I’d like to thank the wonderful staff at the Michael Schimmel Center and the fine people at World Circuit Records for giving me access to cover this event.
Oct. 25th: Chasse Theater, Breda
Oct. 28th: De Oosterpoort, Groningen
Oct. 29th: Leidse Schouwburg, Leiden
Feb. 27th, 2013: Muziekgebouw Frits Philips, Eindhoven