sun 14/07/2024

Fatoumata Diawara, Jazz Café | reviews, news & interviews

Fatoumata Diawara, Jazz Café

Fatoumata Diawara, Jazz Café

The Malian singer exudes charisma and warmth in equal measure, a rare thing indeed

Fatoumata Diawara: the intimate vibe of her album abandoned for maximum live impact

When I first saw this Malian singer-songwriter a few months ago at a showcase gig in a grimly carpeted basement bar in Clerkenwell it was hard to imagine a less appropriate space for such a regally beautiful woman to be found in. Yet within a couple of mantra-like songs she had conjured her own ambience, causing the tardy space to become irrelevant, at least until the last notes died away.

So I was more than looking forward to having this experience repeated last night at the Jazz Café, but this time with a full band supporting her. For although at the Slaughtered Lamb she had captivated with just a guitar, much of the pleasure of Fatou - her debut solo album - comes from the far more involving, layered picture created by the subtle interjections of percussion and other instruments backing her.

But subtlety wasn’t exactly what was dished out to the jam-packed Jazz Café crowd. So there was no dryly plucked ngoni or harp-like call of the kora behind Fatoumata and her semi-acoustic, just the standard jazz/rock line-up of lead guitar, bass, kit drum and backing vocalist. Wearing an extravagantly large headdress and earrings the size of saucers, she won the audience over immediately. One minute, austere and controlled, the next, brimming over with impish charm, it was as if she were sharing with us some private joke centred on the unlikely fact – as far as she was concerned – that she was now centre stage doing what she loved most.

Normally if someone has a mile-wide smile as their default facial expression it can be disconcerting, but with Fatoumata Diawara it never looks forced or fake

A few numbers in, the headdress had unravelled, the beaded locks had been set free, and the semi-acoustic abandoned. Suddenly the dancer and backing vocalist I’d seen coming close to stealing the show from Malian diva Oumou Sangara a couple of years ago had replaced the humble singer-songwriter just as Clark Kent becomes Superman. Fortunately guitarist Mamadou Kouyate was more than capable of taking on both rhythm and lead guitar simultaneously, so her playing was hardly missed.

“I love you Fatou, I adore you!” one gentleman shouted out. A sentiment probably shared by most people in the room. Normally if someone has a mile-wide smile as their default facial expression it can be disconcerting, but with Fatoumata Diawara it doesn't look forced or fake; it’s just there, oscillating between blissfully serene and open-mouthed laughter. It only becomes intriguing if you study the English translation of her Wassoulou lyrics and realise the seriousness of their concerns.

Of the songs played last night, “Kanou” is about a woman grieving the loss of her husband’s touch following a row, “Kele” is a call for all women to dissuade their men from going to war, “Alama” talks of ostracised and persecuted orphans, “Bissa” tackles the subject of arranged marriages, and “Boloko” is about the ever-urgent under-reported crime of female genital mutilation. But, boy, did these songs rock last night. The restrained, sometimes even mournful intimacy of her debut album was replaced by a full-on African funk groove, as Fatoumata danced ecstatically, Catherine-wheeling her locks into a blur as audience members took to the stage for a boogie and a hug.

Although the subject of Mali came up several times in between-song chat, it was very much a Congolese soukous vibe which pushed up the tempo and party atmosphere for the final 20 minutes of the concert. Mamadou Kouyate’s guitar work was exceptional, seamlessly mixing rhythm and lead guitar into one fast-flowing stream of notes, but it was still hard to take your eyes off Fatoumata, smiling, clowning, dancing, singing. This was only the second time I’ve left the Jazz Café thinking I’d been privileged to witness the birth of a true star, the previous occasion being a gripping concert by the now tragically deceased Lhasa de Sela. But apart from being a fine singer and a burgeoning songwriter, Fatoumata Diawara exudes both charisma and warmth in equal measure, which is a rare thing indeed.

This was only the second time I’ve left the Jazz Café thinking I’d been privileged to witness the birth of a true star


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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