To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Paul Harding shares his perspective on Friday night’s concert by Fatoumata Diawara. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Bathed in warm lights on the Cedar Cultural Center‘s stage, strumming a red angular electric guitar suitable for an Eighties hair band, the gorgeous Fatoumata Diawara gently builds a groundwork for the evening’s performance. Backed by bass, drum kit, and lead guitar, she is undoubtedly the focus, singing in an occasionally raspy voice. She wears red and yellow head scarfs, dark lipstick, a wide beaded necklace, yellow shoulder-baring top, and a fuzzy short skirt. Her band wears matching red shirts and black vests.
A perfect invitation into African music for uninitiated Western ears, she offers more familiar elements of singer-songwriter pop than potentially challenging traditional sounds, but still her melodies and language are at least rooted in the traditions of Mali — particularly in the moments when her voice conveys a flash of the wassoulou singing of her mentor Oumou Sangaré, who played years ago at the Walker.
Her commentary, however, didn’t fail to offer challenges, giving context to her songs. Addressing issues such as arranged marriage, the topic of her hit “Bissa,” she explained that she had unconventionally chosen her husband based on love.
She spoke of the “serious problem” Mali has had in the last two years, where fundamentalist Muslims “want us to sing only god” and have banned all other music. Suggesting that traditional music and the rich heritage of Mali’s instruments are about joy in the moment of this life on earth versus the promise that religions offer, she declared living life through the heritage of Africa’s music “the first religion.”
Love for tradition and a desire for progress dance together at every moment of Diawara’s performance. She spoke of the ability of traditional instruments of Mali to speak a language, yet ironically, only briefly did one appear on the stage, seemingly for show more than to speak or sound.
Pan-Africanism held the focus while the band played a bubbling groove. Fatou playfully showed variations of dance common in different regions of Africa sharing this rhythm — from the shoulder movement in Ethiopia’s style to rapid pelvic Congolese moves — representing a uniting potential across Africa.
The forward-looking star pleaded for peace in her land and everywhere, expressing love for all humanity, united with red blood regardless of skin color.
Fully embracing the West, Fatou reveres her heritage, yet shows an affinity with modern chic. Exposing tattoos on her shoulder blades and a pierced lower lip, and mixing traditional dress accessories with fun fashion, she expresses herself visually as much as the through produced tone and composition of her songs.
Fitting well alongside other Malian artists like SMOD or Amadou and Mariam, Fatou is continuing the long interplay of African music with Western pop. As she suggested, this is music representing the new generation of Mali — an aesthetic of popular song mixed with a respect for tradition and a vision of peace.
If you missed the show, or want to hear it again, the entire performance is available for streaming on KFAI here, where it aired Saturday night.