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2018 was the perfect time for Fatoumata Diawara to break out with Fenfo, (“Something to say”), and in 2023 conditions are ripe for this great African voice to launch London Ko, a new album that looks to the future.
Nominated at the Grammy Awards and the Victoires de la Musique in 2019; awarded best female artist at the Awards d’Afrique 2020; nominated for the AEAUSA in 2022, Fatoumata Diawara earned the highest honours with a record that condensed the essence of her musical journey since Fatou (2011). She casts the keen eye of an African woman over controversial issues in contemporary society. The perfect combination of electronic sounds and the traditional melodies of a kora or N’goni, Mandinka rhythms in the percussion and Fatou’s griotic voice, was carefully reflected by her production company, Montuno, and by Mathieu Cheddid, who accompanied her on guitar and co-produced the album. The record was further enhanced by incredible photographs and videos made in Ethiopia by Aida Muluneh, whose exhibitions have travelled as far as New York, showing at MOMA.
“I’ve had so many different musical adventures since the last album, touring and working with so many other musicians and I think you can hear how all of that feeds into this record” she says. “This is my time and I’m sharing my soul.”
Over the last ten years, the Malian artist has participated in a huge number of collaborations in Europe, the United States and, of course, in Africa. She welcomes this as an ideas lab that will help to forge her own style: even more visionary, even less definable. Amongst these encounters is another central figure, Damon Albarn. The artist, who invited her to share the Africa Express stage with Paul McCartney in London in 2012, and then to duet on Désolé, on the 2020 Gorillaz album, has continued his adventure with the Malian singer, co-producing six tracks on her new album London Ko. The title speaks volumes about the connection between the two artists, a definite choice to showcase the importance of sharing and the richness that can be found in difference, at a time when globalisation and discrimination are on the rise.
“To me, London Ko means open minds, open spirits. It represents the connection of Damon Albarn with Malian music.”
In an aesthetic universe that plays with space and time, the artist moves between genres in perfect continuity with what she started on the album Fenfo. Afrobeat, jazz, pop, electro, rock, hip hop or even ska, Fatoumata never stops exploring, but it’s in the pentatonic scale that the magic happens, faithful to the traditional Mandinka register that she has been revisiting since she first started making music. She gives us a taste with the single Nsera (“Destination”), topped off with an explosive video made by Grégory Ohrel. This first release positioned her firmly in the Afrofuturist movement and among the leading artists in a continent with no shortage of talent.
“I put all my love, spirit and entire body into the creative process and this album is pure.”
In retrospect, we can see that this marked the beginning of the path towards the real confluence that shapes London Ko. It all stems from personality, talent, and commitment made with body and soul. In 2013 she brought together the greatest artists in Mali, including Oumou Sangaré, Amadou&Mariam, Tiken Jah, Toumani Diabaté, around forty musicians in total, on a Mali-Ko track (“La Paix”), a response to the country’s disastrous situation. Ten years on, the echo of Mali Ko resounds in London Ko, an artistic choice that confirms the greatness of a performer who doesn’t just critique, but brings fresh ideas. Other “side” projects would punctuate the artist’s journey, including, in 2017, a protest against migrant trafficking in Libya and a video composition, (“Slavery”) that would be watched by huge numbers of people. Also “Ambé” (“Together”), which, at Fatou’s initiative, brings together female artists from around the world – Angélique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, China Moses, Inna Modja, Somi, Mayra Andrade, Thandiswa Mazwai and Terri Lyne Carrington – as motivation not to give up in the context of the pandemic, which saw people tend towards individualism. In 2021 she revolutionised the musical genre of the Western, until then embodied by Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, singing alongside Lauryn Hill on “Black Woman” from the soundtrack to the film The Harder They Fall. The Maliba EP put her in the spotlight, seven songs in a project dedicated to the legendary Timbuktu manuscripts, co-produced by Google Arts. A tribute to Malian culture, but also to its people’s struggle.
At this point, her music career was taking shape in leaps and bounds, with projects like Matthieu Cheddid’s Lamomali, where she naturally took the role of diva, singing a song to the dawn of a new world. -M- describes this album as a utopia, “an imaginary country made real” and adds that: “it is also a celebration of an anomaly that is part of our lives.” A project in line with Fatoumata Diawara’s intellectual and musical convictions; one that transforms the dissonances of the contemporary world by offering new universes of sound and an understanding of the world we live in. Fatou dares us to take an active role in our own lives, and this is the message that runs through all of her work.
It has to be said that one of this artist’s undeniable qualities is resilience. Since childhood, she has overcome the many shocks and obstacles that life has thrown at her. Born in Côte d’Ivoire in 1982 to Malian parents, she was forced to leave the country in the 90s and live with her aunt in Bamako. Her father had 21 children all told, though some succumbed to childhood diseases. Fatoumata grew up in a harsh environment, separated from her parents and often overlooked. It was through her passion for dance that she managed to build her own universe and open the door to the world of cinema. Independent and resourceful from an early age, it’s not just her talent, it’s her extraordinary personality that draws the attention of directors. Her first film shoot, on Taafé Fanga (“The power of women”), was a lifechanging experience for her as a young woman.
“Women played the role of African men and African men played the role of African women. I was 13 or 14 and I thought it was brilliant.”
She was immediately noticed by filmmaker Cheick Oumar Sissoko, who gave her the leading female role in La Genèse. The film would go on to win awards at Cannes festival in 1999. She has acted in several feature films, including the role of Sia in Dani Kouyaté’s film Sia, le Rêve du Python, an adaptation of the myth of the Serpent Bida, in which a girl who is set to be sacrificed attempts to run away from her family. This film would also go on to win prizes. It’s no coincidence that, in her country, she is more commonly known by the name Sia, because fiction would soon become reality. Barely an adult, Fatou was forced to flee her country to avoid a forced marriage. She landed in France to play Antigone at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. In 2002, she joined the famous Compagnie Royal de Luxe de Nantes and stayed with them for six years, giving her the opportunity to travel all over the world in a breath-taking show.
It was acting that re-established her links with Mali, but above all with the music of her country. Hired by the Opéra du Sahel in Bamako to play the female lead, she met Cheick Tidiane Seck who invited her back to Mali to sing on his album Sabaly and to provide backing vocals for the jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater (“Children Go Round”, Red Earth). This proved to be a turning point for the young singer, who then decided to work on her own repertoire and start performing in Paris bars.
Music and cinema go hand in hand, and in 2007, she secured the role of Karaba in musical comedy Kirikou and featured on the soundtrack for the show. In parallel, she played the role of a singer in the film Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry by Guinean director Cheick Fantamadi Camara, which went on to win several prizes, and she was called back several years later to play the lead role in Morbayassa. Once again, fiction and reality overlapped in Fatoumata’s life, as she embodied female power and the gap between tradition and modernity. This fiction/reality would continue its course with Abdherrahmane Sissako and his 2014 film Timbuktu – the most-watched African film in the world and recipient of seven Césars and an Oscar – for which Fatou took a starring role and composed “Timbuktu Fasso” with Amine Bouhafa. She then starred alongside Omar Sy in the Philippe Godeau film Yao, released in 2019, and returned to the stage in the opera Le Vol du Boli, produced by Abdherramane Sissako and scored by Damon Albarn, just before the pandemic.
From the beginning, it was in the film industry that Fatoumata Diawara forged her music career: her appearances alongside world famous Malian musicians would capture the attention of the World Circuit label, allowing her to record her first album, Fatou, in 2011. A hit in the international press, who lauded her as one of the greatest discoveries of young, female, African talent. Before long, she was given the opportunity to sing with artists like Herbie Hancock (The Imagine project, Grammy Award in 2011) and Bobby Womack. In 2012 she sang alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Tony Allen and Damon Albarn, among others, as part of the incredible project Rocket Juice & The Moon. She recorded an album live à Marciac with Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, a young prodigy whose career began ten years earlier with the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. A fusion of Africa and Cuba that confirms the Malian singer’s versatility and her jazzy potential.
All these experiences, in their way, have contributed to shaping the singer’s voice and forging her own musical identity, which culminates in London Ko. The model she proposes stems from her own creativity, which expresses the voice of emancipation. With songs like Netara (“I’m leaving”) or Yada, which addresses the arrogance of fame, she reclaims ancestral vocal techniques, not to recount history but to push things forward. In the company of Africa’s rising stars, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest, or the new voice in Afrobeat Yemi Alade, Fatou is working in an era that looks towards the other, and seeks out the most innovative voices in Africa. The visual proof comes in the form of the video for Nsera, where she mobilises the most influential contemporary African artists in dance, art and fashion, highlighting everything. Yet the message is also one of a multiculturalism that still needs to reinvent itself. London Ko offers a prophetic vision of what Africa can do by inventing an alternative, and inclusive, space and time where it is possible to become master of your own destiny. Angie Stone, Roberto Fonseca, -M- and Damon Albarn are all part of the adventure into forging a new world. By taking care of form, the artist demonstrates not only care for the world, but also care for their ancestors, because, for Fatoumata Diawara, everything is connected.
dj.henri has long specialized in the music of Mali, Guinea, and Desert Blues, opening for Vieux Farka Toure five times, Salif Keita three times, Mdou Moctar, Tinariwen Bombino, Rokia Traore, and Habib Koite He’s been booked at the Apollo Theater, SummerStage, B.B. King’s, Symphony Space, Joe’s Pub, Brooklyn Bowl, and many other venues. For several years, he opened “Desert Blues” shows for the World Music Institute. His station Radio Africa Online is the longest-running African all-music station online, he writes a column for afropop.org, and his podcast, Radio Africa Online Mixes, is featured in Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and elsewhere, enjoying 40 terabytes of traffic annually.