On her strongest album yet, Fatoumata Diawara demonstrates how music from today’s African diaspora can be “Everything Everywhere All at Once”. Currently living in Paris, the singer and actress from Mali named her latest London Ko as a play on the name of the Malian capital of Bamako, a playful announcement that this music seamlessly fuses musical traditions. While it isn’t an amalgam of traditional African instruments with modern electronics, it is still unmistakably African because of the tightly controlled microtonal flourishes of Diawara’s voice as she carries the melody across the rhythmic landscape set down by her excellent band.
Born in the Ivory Coast to Malian parents, Diawara left Mali as a teenager to pursue acting, and after returning, she had to flee to avoid an arranged coerced marriage. Her initial acting career led to starring roles in Genesis, Sia, and Dream of the Python, made by noted African filmmakers. In 2014, she was in the film Timbuktu, which received critical acclaim and numerous awards, including a nomination for an Academy Award.
She then learned the electric guitar and embarked on a parallel music career. Her third album Fenfo received a 2018 Grammy nomination for world music, and she has collaborated with a wide range of international musicians, from Paul McCartney to Dee Dee Bridgewater to her long-time mentor Oumou Sangare.
In London Ko, Diawara uses a broader sonic palette than her earlier music and generally dials up the amplitude. While the music aims to move your body, its Bambara lyrics are also meant to move your spirit. Updating the African griot tradition of cautionary storytelling, the songs are generally about living the right life and heartfelt advice for contemporary women.
Diawara starts the flow with the rolling mid-tempo bluesy beats of “Netara”, but the lyrics are about keeping an eye on your enemies who speak badly about you. In her plaintive voice, she sings: “Even if you do not love me, brethren / Do not slander me.” The next track, “Somaw”, is a funky paean to family, a nostalgic look back by the émigré from Paris to Africa. Guest vocalist Angie Stone sings in her husky timbre about how in a “cold distant world”, there is “nothing sweet as family”.
“Sete (Powerless)” makes powerful use of the Brooklyn Children’s Choir, the angelic voices billowing around a spare arrangement of finger-snapping, guitar curlicues, and light keyboard flourishes. The message, in contrast, is about female genital mutilation, which is still practiced today, and Fatoumata Diawara had personal experience with. She urges Africans to end hurting their children in a ritual she calls “barbaric”.
Her “N’Sera” is based on a celebratory trip back home. The polyrhythmic instrumentation sets lively dancefloor-ready beats and features some ethereal vocals from Damon Albarn. A funked-up bass on “Yada” leads to finger-wagging from Diawara, telling an unnamed star that he should check his ego. “Hey man, do you hear me? / I know you have money and gold / But you are not better than me.”
With “Tolon”, Diawara puts her heavier concerns aside and calls for an out-and-out party. However, she invites elders who have worked hard over the years to the musical celebration and then name-checks various West African people: “Let us unite and be one.”
Despite the electronic instrumentation and modern genres it gobbles up, London Ko is thoroughly African at heart. Diawara has overcome the hurdles in her life and emerges with energy and resilience to spare, delivering her message of hope and guidance to African women in particular but really to all. She uses her platform to entertain and as a reminder to do right by those around you. Like the old griots who sang in dusty villages, Fatoumata Diawara uses her life experiences to tell stories in the modern global marketplace. She is an old soul singing contemporary soul.