A Newness of Listening—The Music of Fatoumata Diawara – Ndukwu Joseph
I can think of many words to describe the music of Fatoumata Diawara, but the one that pierces through and hovers above all others is: numinous. The life in her songs is felt on several plains, but ultimately it is their transcendence, their sensuous crossings that most captivates. It crosses language, solitude, sorrow to get to you.
A traveller and émigré, it is not surprising to find this quality in her music. She was raised in Ivory Coast and Mali before moving to France and has travelled the world on tours, picking up languages, gaining friends, acquiring new sensibilities. Such a cosmopolitan life is not without its cost. For every new place moved to, there’s always another left behind; for every new life adopted, there’s always another relinquished. And then for all of these there is grief.
Her music draws its pulse from all of these things. Yet one doesn’t sense that resolution or escape is her aim. She is singing to keep her experiences and emotions alive, troublesome as several of them are, and in that way making something that provides peace. Her music becomes both the grief and the consolation.
“Bakonoba” from her 2011 album Fatou which mixes plucky guitar and kora with lively singing is a personal as well as popular favourite. It offers enjoyment without any fuzz. Another song from that album that shares a similar relaxed joyful vibe is “Bissa”. Both songs, in that way that music communicates across languages, reaffirm the possibility of joy.
Art in which nothing is at stake is dead.
I like that whenever I listen to songs from At Home (2015), I experience this expansive tension. There is so much to lose in the business of living, and this reality of loss and losing becomes all the more stark when you are black and woman and immigrant. Fatoumata keeps the music sombre and elastic enough to be both aware and responsive to these concerns. Writing this, I particularly have “Real Family” in mind. It is a fairly long track, over 6 minutes long, which begins with a piano-tempered monologue in French. The piano and monologue sets the tone for the entire piece which sounds like a quiet yet deeply felt lament.
I remember when I first listened to Fatoumata, sometime in 2014. “Sowa” and “Bakonoba” were the songs I first heard. I remember feeling excitement at a refreshing new sound. As I listened to her more, her songs stopped providing excitement; more and more they came to provide companionship. The songs in At Home demand an altogether different kind of listening. They force you to drop whatever you’re doing to listen more introspectively. Her voice commands a newness of listening. Many may not know it, but this may be her greatest charm yet.
Around the time when she started singing, so the story goes, she also began to play an instrument, and sometime later Rokia Traoré, a fellow Malian musician, convinced her to take up the guitar, which she did. Ever since, her use of the guitar has become inseparable from her public image and performance. It defines her music. Although this is nothing special as far as African music goes—one thinks of Farka Toure and his kóra, Fela and his sax—something still must be said for Fatoumata and her ensemble. There a few songss in which the guitar reaches me in its own singular authority as it does in “Alama”. Calm and undistracted, the notes advance alongside her voice.
In a time of worldwide distress, things made with attention to detail always provide refuge.
Fatoumata is also an actor, has been an actor as long as she’s been a singer, even longer. And it would not be too much to say that her voice, which many have described as alive, captivating, sensuous, comes from that part of her mind that lends itself to theatre. Julyssa Lopez writing for the New Yorker described her voice as amplifying African rhythms and Wassoulou storytelling traditions. Several of her lyrics (many of which I read in translation) are stories, rather than just poetry or meditation. There are characters, action, a discernible plot, and a kind of resolution in the choruses. While the instruments establish mood, atmosphere and context, it is her voice that, in large part, animates the characters and advances the plot.
Fenfo, her 2018 Grammy-nominated album—translated Something to Say—is a trove of stories*. But they are stories of longing: for home, for a lover, for a better world. This sense of longing is not derived merely from the lyrics but from a feeling in the music. “Kokoro,” her second song on that album, with its soft-textured surface, reminds me of Coltraneʼs “In a Sentimental Mood”. They both evoke in me a feeling of longing. And both are, as I tell friends, music for the rain.
Still speaking of longing, I would be remiss if I do not mention “Timbuktu Fasso” which she wrote based on the soundtrack composed by Amine Bouhafa for the 2014 film Timbuktu. She then went on to record the song with him and perform it on tours. It is a mournful ode to Timbuktu and to Mali. The quiet melancholy of the song belies its poignant political concerns. While it is not one of my favourites , I rather enjoy its sparse feel. I also enjoy that despite the easily discernible current of longing and grief in it, it still remains a song not easy to categorize.
In a half-finished poem from long ago I wrote this line: “Listen, listen again; that may be all there is to survival.”
That is the only thing I remember from the poem that ran for over half a page, and I do not think it would have made a fine poem, but that one line held a truth I have never been able to shake off since. Fatoumata’s music insists on such renewed and continued listening. They cross distances to get to you, and the gifts they bear are varied each time.