Concert review: Virtuosic Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara awed the Chan

Even before we caught sight of her on the blue-lit stage of the Chan Centre last Friday, the powerful alto voice of Malian singer and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara had already filled the room. She reverberated through the venue’s sound system in a recorded hum, as her bandmates prepared the stage for her.

Diawara made her entrance in a long white skirt and traditional Malian cowrie shells adorning her hair. Less traditional was her cherry-red electric guitar. Diawara describes herself as the first female electric guitar soloist in Mali, and she generously and joyfully shares the power that comes from knowing exactly who she is.

Although Diawara’s music is rooted in her Wassoulou musical heritage, her experimental work is a seamless hybrid of styles from jazz to funk to Afrofuturist synth. Since she moved to Paris as a teenager to pursue music, she has dedicated her immense talents to crossing borders and genres, while always representing her gender and her heritage. That means she is often entering venues that have never seen someone like her do what she does.

Her band’s jazz bass lines, Afro-pop melodies and funk drum fills are made for motion. However, the Chan Centre can feel like a space that represses it. My tapping foot seemed at odds with the tiers of plush opera seats designed for receptive stillness, not active engagement.

As Diawara’s band shredded solo after solo though, rows of heads in front of me began to bob and nod. It was clear I wasn’t the only one barely holding back.

Her band’s jazz bass lines, Afro-pop melodies and funk drum fills are made for motion.
Her band’s jazz bass lines, Afro-pop melodies and funk drum fills are made for motion. Jan Gates / Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

After one electrifying dance number, the lights cooled to a rich ultramarine and the bass slowed to a blues groove. Guitar in hand, Diawara sang out in her rich alto, “Birds flying high, you know how I feel…”

Diawara has said Nina Simone first opened her eyes to the possibility that she could play an instrument, sing and front a band all at once. Her cover of Simone’s “Feeling Good,” with lyrics in Diawara’s mother tongue of Bambara, spoke to the powerful transatlantic Black and women-centred musical legacy that Diawara claims.

To feel good is a dense, heavy thing. It does not always come easy, and striding the stage in a satisfied circle, Diawara delivered it with a gravity and grace that flooded the space. Between songs, she explained why.

“I like to dance my problems,” said Diawara. “I like to sing my problems. It’s not easy for women to be leaders — I’m one of the survivors.”

She launched into the song “Boloko” (“circumcision” in English), which broke boundaries in 2011 by criticizing the common practice of female genital mutilation. It’s one example of how Diawara has used her music and her global fame throughout her career to speak out against gender-based violence. Her mission is to inspire more women to take up space, pick up guitars and make their voices heard.

At the Chan Centre, she inspired the crowd out of our seats. Seated clapping became standing became swaying to the rhythm of jubilant 2022 single "Nsera," which aptly means "destination."

Diawara set down her guitar and danced in swirling circles — all while still holding down the vocals. Looking away from the electricity of her performance at the rows above me, I saw grey-haired men in blazers closing their eyes and twirling their raised hands, while students in hoodies beamed around the room.

Any great artist can command attention. Diawara did that and more — she helped the audience grow attentive to each other, and to tap into the type of joy that makes all of us better.

Diawara's upcoming album, in collaboration with British musician Damon Albarn (from Gorillaz), London Ko, is out May 12.

— With files from Sabrina Qistina