A bolt from the blue. Back in 2011... ... wearing brightly coloured clothing, with a megawatt smile and just an electric guitar slung laconically over her shoulder for company, Fatoumata Diawara nevertheless packed quite a punch playing solo at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell, as she previewed songs from Fatou.
Featuring her vocals and guitar and with guests such as London’s Seb Rochford on the track ‘Bakonoba’ the album was recorded in Paris and London although Diawara was actually born in Ivory Coast and raised in Mali and was Paris-based.
Her voice it struck me back then resembled Rokia Traore’s and her guitar accompaniment had something of the loose twanging bluesy style of a Djelimady Tounkara.
Diawara’s songs were concerned with themes like a woman’s right to choose her marriage partner, or the difficulties Africans face when they leave their homeland, and her style has a plaintiff eerily beautiful way with it that despite the language barrier manages to convey a certain languid emotion which is so effective. Wasn't she so ahead of her time?
Fast forward to 2015... ... this time not a million miles from Clerkenwell, the Barbican, a much bigger crowd and my and how: Fatou was playing the big hall with Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca.
The band had a swaying infectious feel to it driven hard by Fonseca who hammered the keys hard, rocking his body head bobbing up and down at his most exuberant while Diawara’s amazing voice cuts the air like a dagger.
Her startling back-of-the-throat yodelly quickfire rattle punctuating the night air from time to time added an unearthly signature touch sending the crowd wild (you could hear people imitating the unique sound as they left the concert hall later on). Highlights for me were ‘Sowa’, ‘Clandestin’ and ‘Mandela,’ on the latter song, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, Diawara threw off her head scarf, the beads of her hair flying all over her face as she head bobbed joyously.
May 2018... and Fenfo (Wagram/Montuno). The brand new album. My, my my.
Haunting, a numinous lilt to the singer’s voice establishes itself and in tandem with trumpeter Arve Henriksen who has one of the most unique playing timbres in contemporary music (let alone jazz because it is jazz yet folk but not folk eastern yet Nordic in sensibility and inspiration) Pilgrim is a welcome turn of the wheel for ACT a label synonymous since the 1990s with the enduring musical contribution of EST.
Patchy as a label in recent years since the departure of Vijay Iyer for ECM and reliant more on family acts that the Siggi Loch directed label is famously supportive and nurturing of plus the international success of Youn Sun Nah, Janne Mark may not have very wide appeal beyond Europe and many jazz fans will be puzzled by her modern approach and inferred religiosity tempered by a syncretism of pop-like carefully emergent melodies and Americana. However that puzzlement will recede and turn into an enchantment.