Fatoumata Diawara is a singer and guitar player from Mali whose lilting voice, fluid guitar playing and effortless melodies recall her countrywoman Rokia Traore. Diawara’s voice is not quite as ethereal as Traore’s but her skills are nevertheless impressive, and her debut album Fatou is a rare gift of a record for fans of African pop, female vocalists and generally outstanding music.
Fatou kicks off with “Kanou”, a tune that in many ways encapsulates the aesthetic of the album. Buoyed by layers of acoustic guitars, percussion and a snaky bassline, Fatou’s voice hovers over it all, weaving a mesmerising melodic spell. Fatou sings primarily in Bambara, so Anglophone listeners will need to respond to the feelings, if not the exact meaning, conveyed by Fatou’s wavering, wistful, defiant voice. Happily, the singer possesses plenty of power, and the ability to convey a wide range of emotion.
That’s the good news. The even better news is that this opening track is no fluke: the rest of the album is just as strong. At 12 tracks, the album weights in at 42-plus minutes. Highlights include “Bissa”, with its beefy, percussive rhythm and impressive use of harmonics, as well as the downtempo “Wililé”, the longest song here and perhaps the most satisfying with its slow-burn pacing and harmony vocals. Picking standout tracks is a dicey business, though; this is a strong set of tunes and there’s not a dud in the bunch. If some, like “Sowa”, have an oddly familiar sound to them, well, the liveliness of both arrangement and performance keep the set consistently fresh.
If anything, the record is a touch too consistent. Ten of these 12 songs are between three and four minutes long; just about the time a groove gets established, the singer is already moving on to the next song. There are no long jams here, and nothing over five minutes, even though many of these tunes have that loping, hypnotic quality that could easily see them stretching out, Ali Farka Touré-style, into something truly transcendent.
This is a minor criticism: what matters more than what isn’t here is what is here, and what is here is great. “Kele” features some of Diawara’s most plaintive vocals and a trotting, stick-in-your-ear beat, while “Sonkolon” is just too darn pretty to listen to only once. All these songs are built around the twin pillars of Diawara’s voice and her dextrous guitar plucking, with varying degrees of underlying percussion, keyboards and bass. The sound is warm and organic: energetic without being grating, and sweet without being saccharine.
Fatou marks the debut of a powerful new voice on the international music scene. Fans of Oumou Sangare (for whom Fatou has sung backup), Rokia Traore or any of Afro-pop’s many crossover stars will find much to savor here. Fatou’s voice possesses a sweetness that belies its power and a grace that does nothing to detract from her verve. Plus she can play the guitar. Plus she has a terrific smile. Memo to the rest of the world: prepare to be smitten.