Our Daily Bread 278: Fatoumata Diawara ‘Fenfo’

July 10, 2018

Album Review: Words: Phil Vanderyken




Fatoumata Diawara ‘Fenfo’  (Republic Of Music)  Available Now

This is such a beautiful record.

For every action there is a re-action. As bigotry, xenophobia and ultra-nationalism appear to be gaining ground all over the Western world, there is also a surprisingly fast growing popularity for what once would have been called “world music”, that is, music from anywhere but the UK or the US. In the age of globalization and a hyper-connected world, it’s only logical that human beings from very different parts of the world discover each other’s culture and all kinds of interesting and new musical hybrids are springing up. And there is a growing audience for it.

Immigration is of course, the key development that is making this happen. It brings us bands like The Turbans and the Brickwork Lizards in the UK who make a kind of music that is truly multicultural, bringing together British musicians with first and second-generation immigrants, communicating through the universal language that is music. In the US, Kronos Quartet collaborated with Trio da Kali from Mali on their stellar album Ladilikan, a multicultural mini-masterpiece.

Multiculturalism has also been making inroads into pop music. In France, pop star Indira is of Algerian, Cambodian, Egyptian and Indian descent. Her music pulls influences from hip hop, reggae, gypsy swing, raga and more to create a unique style of irresistible pop music that has been very successful.

Fatoumata Diawara’s case is somewhat different. The actress, singer and musician was born in Ivory Coast of Malian parents before immigrating to Paris as a teenager in order to escape the pressures of her traditionalist family. Fatoumata sings in her native language, and her music is deeply rooted in her culture. Her first album Fatou could be described as acoustic African pop and received praise from the likes of Pitchfork. In contrast Fenfo, her second album, incorporates elements of pop, funk, and rock into a very popular hybrid that has wooed audiences in Europe and the US while still very much remaining quintessentially African.

I first became aware of Fatoumata through the beautiful music video for her song ‘Nterini’, the opening track, a very moving and current song about a refugee who has been separated from his beloved, trying to make his way to a better future for himself and his family.

Fatoumata does not shy away from controversial topics. She sings about slavery, female genital mutilation, a practice that is still very common in Africa today, and the ban on marriages between different ethnic groups. But she does so without rancour or negativity, and her music is deeply joyous and full of life, practically jumping out of the speakers.

‘Kokoro’ is the kind of desert blues popularized by the Touareg guitarist Bombino, featuring soaring psychedelic lead guitar like Hendrix camped out in the Sahara.

‘Mama’ is a tender acoustic ballad with acoustic guitar and majestic cello, over which Fatoumata’s world-weary vocals hover and soar.

‘Bonya’ is the most poppy track of the album, with a sing along chorus and a solid funk vibe that would not sound out of place on a Suffers record. Sweetly meandering guitar lines keep bringing the listener’s mind back to the steppes and townships of Africa.

As if to drive home the virtuosic eclecticism of this release, ‘Dibi Bo’ sounds like a mix of Afropop and Motown, whereas ‘Don Do’ is a subdued ending to the album, another acoustic offering that combines guitar and cello, showcasing Fatoumata’s stunning vocal delivery one last time.

Fenfo is an ambitious, far-reaching record that combines many strands of music while remaining firmly rooted in African culture. There is nothing ‘naïve’ about the album’s sunny optimism and joyous energy. Rather, it is a stubborn celebration of life, in spite of all the challenges, hardships and ugliness one faces. Fenfo is a deeply spiritual declaration of love for the world and everyone in it. This album makes me happy and gives me hope for the future.





Words: Phil Vanderyken

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