Fatoumata Diawara translates the title of her new album Fenfo as “something to say”. It makes for as accurate a title as she could pick; Diawara holds nothing back as she sings about love, family, tradition, and identity over smooth melodies rich with a variety of strings – kora, ngoni, electric guitar, cello – and crisp, clear beats. Her voice is at the forefront of it all, lyrical and engaging, more brilliantly subtle in its emotion than perhaps it ever has been before.
Opening track “Nterini”, tells the poignant story of lovers forced to live far apart. Diawara longs, yearning against a backdrop of cool, desert-kissed guitar notes and handclaps. Synth touches come into play here and throughout the album; they are careful, adding a touch of Afrofuturism but ultimately not expanding the music too far beyond Diawara’s well-developed talent and those of her supporting band members. This is music unencumbered by unnecessary flourishes and buoyed by skill.
As the album goes on, the colors change. “Kokoro” introduces a bluesy heat as Diawara encourages her fellow black Africans to embrace their color and culture, a timely message. It culminates in Diawara promising to honor her heritage and wondering aloud once more why others will not; her singing reaches a fever pitch over a frenzy of guitars at the deeply felt ending.
“Ou Y’an Ye” begins gently, but sharp twangs of electric guitar create the illusion of speed over steady, midtempo beats and shape the piece into one of resolve. “Kanou Dan Yen” follows with an airy kora balancing some of Diawara’s more somber vocals. “Fenfo” takes her to an even more serious place as she approaches total agony over a world of sorrow and malice.
The album’s trajectory changes for the more upbeat at “Negue Negue”, a funky dance number with a nonchalant sway that takes it from vintage rehash to stylish, contemporary throwback. In contrast, “Mama” sets daughterly love to music with an acoustic blend of instruments that includes Vincent Ségal on cello, anchoring the soulful ballad. “Takamba” has the same tender touch as early Amadou and Mariam; “Bonya” has a rock and roll edge and a catchy chorus of vocables that would make any golden-age Motown producer proud. Rounding out the tracklist are peppy, tropical “Dibi Bo” and gorgeously raw “Don Do”, which sees Ségal return with more heartbreaking cello undertones as Diawara tells a story of unrequited love.
A dozen songs give Diawara a dozen chances to try something new. She takes each one, owning every piece, merging old and new as she calls on both her history and her creativity to put together an album that showcases the whole of her.
Diawara’s 2011 debut album, Fatou, was coffee shop ready. Intimate and sweet, Diawara could have kept making that record over and over again to critical acclaim had she so chosen. As appealing as the easy route may be, though, she blazes a whole new path on Fenfo, and it pays off. Diawara’s know-how, musicality, and sense of self all come together, and Fenfo proves her to be one of the most dynamic voices in Afropop today.