Fatoumata Diawara at Cedar Cultural Center, 4/12/13

Fatoumata Diawara at Cedar Cultural Center, 4/12/13
Photo by Youri Lenquette

Fatoumata Diawara
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Friday, April 12, 2013

There wasn't a n'goni or djembe to be seen or heard at the Cedar Friday night. Fatoumata Diawara played a flashy cherry-red guitar any aspiring teen metalhead would drool over, and she fronted what looked like a standard rock band: electric guitar, electric bass, trap drums. But the shifting polyrhythms and high-wattage guitar the quartet delivered for nearly two hours was hardly rock or blues or funk. It was just what the Malian-raised singer called it: "a development of our traditional music."

Born in Côte d'Ivoire and now living in France, the 30-year-old Diawara clearly sees herself as a standard bearer for a new generation of cosmopolitan Africans, especially African women. She once sang backup for the queen of the Wassoulou sound, Oumou Sangare, and though her voice is less robust, her sense of how to tweak that sound without betraying its essence is just as keen and pronounced, and so is her commitment to female solidarity.

See Also:
Fatoumata Diawara: I'm working on a voice for women that didn't exist before

Diawara is stately and slender, with the charismatic presence of the movie actress she once was, a presence accentuated by her striking stage outfit of a red and yellow head wrap, a strapless yellow top, and a short multi-colored skirt. And she had enough showbiz sense to dress her band in matching black vests and maroon shirts, which they offset with little personal touches -- French guitarist Greg Emonet in a porkpie hat, Cameroonian bassist Jean-Baptiste Gbadoé in a Kangol.

The set began softly, even gently, with Diawara accompanying herself on guitar, but over the course of the evening reached a greater frenzy than her often-subdued debut full-length, Fatou, would lead you to expect. Emonet's virtuosic ripples built off Diawara's arpeggios, while Gbadoé's bass melodies sprung off the subtle yet powerful drumming of Jean-Alain Hohy. And once the headwrap came off, there was nothing mild or ruminative about Diawara, who can ululate with the best of them and cut loose with a searing unaccompanied vocal coda at the close of "Kanou."

Between songs, and sometimes during them, Diawara had plenty to say. "Sorry for my English," she apologized at one point, "but I would like to communicate with you." She introduced "Bissa," about the evils of arranged marriage, with a homily against that persistent tradition that started with a proud "It's African woman time!" and ended with a strong "Peace out!" And she knew how to stroke a Minneapolis crowd's local pride. "Since I was born, we hear about this town by Prince, naturally," she said. "You're lucky. You're very lucky!"

On "Tounkan," Diawara showed her pedagogical side. She attempted to teach us a traditional dance, though many in the crowd ignored her "right, left and down" instructions and instead followed their own individual, if not odd physical enthusiasms. "This rhythm is very old," Diawara explained, and then conducted a virtual musical tour of Africa, from Ethiopia to Senegal, with the band adjusting its sound to fit each stop along the way as Diawara demonstrated each region's traditional dance styles.

Diawara addressed the violence that's ripped Mali apart when introducing "Kele" ("War"). "They want us to sing only God," she said of the Islamic rebels who seek to ban music. "For me, this moment, it's kind of calling God also." Each of her homeland's traditional instruments speaks in "a different language," she explained, respectful of a heritage that she nonetheless has chosen to expand.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: Though a strong debut, Fatou is at times mellow for my taste, so I was happy to hear Diawara and her band rev up even some of the disc's milder tunes live.

The Crowd: Your standard Cedar mix of graying hippie-ish couples, horn-rimmed worldbeat scholars, wide-eyed students, and a few very cool and hyperactive children.

Overheard In The Crowd: "And that guitar is even more attractive than she is."

Random Notebook Dump: Among the dancers who joined Diawara onstage during her encore was Fatawu Sayibu, founder and artistic director of the local troupe Tiyumba Drum and Dance. But despite his considerable skill, he was overshadowed by a little girl with a dead-serious expression and some killer moves.


1. "Nayan"

2. "Sonkolon"

3. "Sowa"

4. "Kanou"

5. "Kele"

6. "Bissa"

7. "Bakonoba"

8. "Alama"

9. "Tounkan"

10. "Salimata" (Encore)

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