Fenfo by Fatoumata Diawara – Album Review
By David Schuster
The rhythmic music of the West African nations, which include Mali, Senegal and Ivory Coast, has beguiled me ever since I first heard notes falling from the kora of Toumani Diabaté like a melodic waterfall. I saw Fatoumata Diawara’s exquisite Glastonbury performance for the BBC in 2013, and because of this I jumped at the chance to review her second studio recording; Fenfo.
From now on, if someone asks: “What do you like about African music?” I am going to play them ‘Ou Y’ An Ye’, the third track on this album as it really does summarise it: A fusion of traditional and contemporary instruments, jaunty guitar and beautiful vocals over a sensuous rhythm section.
On this track and on most of the record, Diawara sings in Bambara, the most widely spoken language of Mali, her native country. Now, I have to admit that I don’t speak Bamara, and there’s a good chance you don’t either. However, as demonstrated by Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal gymnastics with the Cocteau Twins, if you can’t understand the words the voice becomes another lead instrument, allowing your mind to drift away on the flow of music. For me this is the soundtrack to a hot summer’s day, perfect music for listening to on the beach.
The Malian songstress plays the guitar, but there are a multitude of traditional African instruments, which makes identifying what’s used tricky (some sleeve notes, or ideally a booklet, with the CD would be great), though I’d bet that the harp sounds are from a kora. Almost certainly the mbira features; the archetypal plucked instrument, made from metal tines fixed to a sound box, which is universal because it can be created from scrap. Whether by design or necessity Fenfo was recorded in Mali, Burkina Faso, Barcelona and Paris. This eclectic set of locations gives the traditional sound a modern crispness.
Fatoumata’s talents were immediately recognised on the release of her first record, Fatou, which has given her the chance to perform alongside such musical greats as Damon Albarn, Paul McCartney and the aforementioned Toumani Diabaté. This second album will strengthen that reputation further. The first two tracks, ‘Nterini’ and ‘Kokoro’ have already been put out as singles, but there are several other highlights. The title track, ‘Fenfo’, features deep, rich vocals over a slower, hypnotic rhythm and an acoustic guitar line that reminded me of Van Morrison, had Van-the-man been born in Senegal. By contrast ‘Dibi Bo’ is as bright and fluffy as a rainbow unicorn, impossible to listen to without smiling. The tracks cover a wealth of emotion.
Sadly, the troubles of the West African nations are often in the news; war, poverty, disease and political upheaval make for good headlines, but difficult lives. It’s long been a truism that such adversity breeds great musicians. Fenfo is Bambara for ‘something to say’ and Diawara tackles these issues head on. She sings of migration, family and making a better world, and has previously recorded a song highlighting the trafficking of modern day slaves through Libyan markets. Fatoumata Diawara has something to say, and we should all be listening.