Fatoumata DiawaraBand On The Wall @ Leaf 6/2/20
Having wowed critics with her debut album Fatou in 2011, it took seven years before FATOUMATA DIAWARA released her ‘difficult’ second, 2018’s Fenfo (Something To Say), to even greater fanfare and a couple of Grammy nominations, adding elements of pop and electronica to the more traditional Malian folk and desert blues. She explained her restrained recording output and album title in a 2018 interview with OkayAfrica magazine thusly: “Don’t sing just to sing. Sing to change things, to make things better. That’s why I can’t have a song every four months… because I know many people will be listening to my lyrics.” However, she has not locked herself away during her search for quality over quantity, she has continued the acting career that pre-dated her professional involvement in music and has seemingly never been off the road, performing with her band all over the world, and collaborating both live and in the studio with the likes of Damon Albarn, Paul McCartney and Herbie Hancock.
The room at Leaf is buzzing, standing room only, as a sell-out crowd are already taking up position before the empty stage. No support tonight, so not long to wait; the band members appear and begin a slow, gentle introduction. Sustained cymbal splashes wash over the crowd as Diawara, in striking sapphire turban, guitar in hand, makes her way through the crowd. She walks on stage, smiles that smile, and lays down some bluesy licks over the rhythm, before the band hit the groove of Don Do.
She addresses the crowd before the second song, Kokoro, and lays down a template for the evening; a mixture of cultural celebration and protest – let us rejoice in the music, theatre, community of Africa, let us rail against its injustices, its crimes against women and children.
Timbuktu (“where we cannot play music today”), from the 2014 movie of the same name, is introduced as a paean to children suffering, not just in her homeland but around the world. Her anguished vocal does justice to the subject, underscored by a soulful keyboard groove by Arecio that could have come straight out of Muscle Shoals. The set is embellished throughout with his masterful jazz/blues/soul-inflected playing. From its soulful roots the song develops via a blistering guitar solo from Yacouba Kone, to a rocky finale as drummer Jean Baptiste works the whole of his kit.
The rhythm section of Baptiste and Sekou Bah (bass) is funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter, as they drive us at varying tempos through the night, stop-starting in immaculate fashion, maintaining a subtle, irresistible groove, and individually demonstrating their virtuosity; Bah with a Jaco Pastorious style solo, Baptiste in a teasing vocal-drum challenge with Diawara.
Diawara and Kone fire solos and rhythms off each other, the coolest guitar-slingers in town, as the band effortlessly segues between rock, desert blues, highlife and Afrobeat. When Diawara solos she arches her back, face skywards, eyes closed. She could be anywhere, but she’s here with us, a symbiotic relationship growing by the second as the jam-packed Leaf audience moves as one. At other times she is wholly in the room, making eye contact with audience members, smiling at them in an intimacy felt by all.
Throughout the evening she praises her musical heroes, her muses – among them Fela Kuti, Oumou Sangaré and Nina Simone, whose version of the spiritual Sinnerman is triumphantly covered, Fatou unwinding her turban and allowing it to fall free, covering her face and torso – “I ran to the Lord”, singing veiled, the band cooking, her vocal more and more intense – “I said Lord hide me, please”, until she pulls the veil away and, dreads flying, proceeds to orchestrate the wide-eyed crowd with a dance of possessed, uplifting intensity – “Sinnerman, you ought to be prayin’, ought to be prayin’, Sinnerman”. Well I guess we are, after a fashion.
The deep intensity of the middle section gives way to the more upbeat bounce of Sowa (the only song from her debut album) and Bonya, both ripe with the possibility of crowd interaction, but not the forced, crowd-control freakery of the insecure; this is a mutual bonding, Diawara and the band are smiling as widely as the audience, clearly revelling in the crackling atmosphere. The crowd are singing choruses, clapping rhythmically along, and, under the conducting arm of Diawara, crouching lower and lower before leaping for the sky and continuing a bounce reminiscent of a Maasai Adumu ceremony (or of pogoing to X-Ray Spex in Eric’s circa ’78 to those of a certain vintage!).
The small setting has proved a success. Diawara retires to the side of the stage while the entire crowd chants for more. As the encore, Anisou, gets into its stride she smiles at someone in the front row, extends her hand, and pulls him on stage. Before long about 10 crowd members have been invited to join them. They dance and worship in a joyful, exuberant finale that cements the togetherness of the occasion. Diawara, meanwhile, jumps down from the stage and makes her exit, orchestrating a series of whirlpool like circle dances that moves her across the room amidst the whooping crowd. The band plays on. No one wants this to end.
Early February. Too early, I know, to speak of ‘gigs of the year’. But the bar has been set. Follow that.