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Fatoumata Diawara at Nourse Theater

Harry S. Pariser By

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Fatoumata Diawara
Nourse Theater
Mali Fest
San Francisco, CA
April 18, 2014

A buzz was in the air among those assembled at San Francisco's Nourse Theater for the first night of Mali Fest, a set of two concerts which featured two distinct acts. This initial evening headlined the multitalented singer, songwriter, musician and actress Fatoumata Diawara. Born in the Ivory Coast but raised in Mali (where her family belongs to the royal caste), Diawara plays guitar, sings, acts in films and resides in France. A vocalist who has toured with the legendary Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, Fatoumata also performed on Sangaré's CD Seya. Inspired to take up the electric guitar by her older mentor Rokia Traore, Diawara is a comparatively recent arrival on the scene: Fatou, her debut CD, was released by Nonesuch in 2012. Poised behind her electric guitar and never at a loss for words, the dymamic Diawara made a formidable impression onstage. She took her Wassoulou tradition and combined it with African and other world rhythms in an original, infectiously melodic blend which she termed "Wassoulou folk." The music was political, joyful and unforgettable.

Karim Baer, the director of Public Programs & Performances at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), made the first round of introductions. Baer related that the series of African concerts had been motivated by what was happening in Mali. "This was our way of giving back to them as well as to educate our community." He was followed by Professor Alka Arora, CIIS chair of the graduate program in Women's Spirituality, who introduced Fatoumata, stressing that "music is the center of our inner soul." Anora then referenced Fatoumata's involvement in the "Half the Sky" campaign against female oppression.

Then the lights dimmed as Diawara's three backing musicians, all three wearing red shirts, took the stage. Guitarist John Lee, drummer Tosin Aribasala from Nigeria who has performed with Femi Kuti and bassist John Bashengezi, a native of the Congo known for his backing of Vieux Farka Toure. They laid down a dynamic beat as Fatoumata Diawara entered. Wearing an elaborate, multi- color, striped yellow dress and a multicolored turban on her head, complimented cowrie shells in her hair and loop earrings, Diawara started right into "Kanou," the title track of her EP (which preceded the CD).

"The other day I argued with my love
The other day I argued with my husband
And now His hands no longer touch my neck His hands no longer touch my waist
His hands no longer stroke my hair
He no longer looks me in the eye And my heart aches"


Between songs, she was consistently engagingly loquacious— covering such diverse topics as female circumcision, immigration and other social issues of critical importance. She is one of a small number of internationally- known African women who is speaking up and laying it down rather than leaning in with corrupt corporate and political elites.

Heading into "Boloko," her second number, she denounced female circumcision before singing in Bamara "Don't cut the flower that makes me a woman....If you circumcise girls, you will make their intimate moments difficult"

Introducing "Mandela," she exclaimed "In this song, I thank Mandela for being Mandela before singing Mandela, Mandela, Nelson Mandela." Aribasala's heavy drumming at the start gave way to a sustained backbeat in tandem with Bashengezi.

With the eminently danceable "Clandestine," she offered up a "big love to all people around the world." The song dealt with the migration of Africans to Europe, triggered by the need to put food on their families' tables. Diawara implored that "We need to ask our African governments to allow us to stay home."

"The fault lies with Europeans
Our young people get up and decide to emigrate
To go on an adventure in search of money
They left their mothers at home
They left their fathers at home
Some call them Illegals
But we call them Men of AdventureI
Ask our leaders, isn't there someone to help them stay at home?"


By this time, the audience was dancing wildly in the aisles and swarming around the front of the stage. Ushers attempted the Sisyphean task of clearing them, which failed.
A song about unity, Kélé, was next:

"I cry when I think of all the wars in the world
All these conflicts in the world make me cry
I ask our mothers, listen to us and let us unite
Do everything we can to make it happen
It is war that separates brothers It is war that separates parents It is war that separates brothers
It is war that separates parents
Why this war today?"

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