I met Mike Dias roaming the night streets of New York, when he randomly approached me to ask if I was in town for the Head-Fi Meet--our first national meet in New York, back in 2006. He was working full-time for Ultimate Ears, the answer to his question was of course "yes," and we've been friends ever since. Mike still helps Ultimate Ears out, writing their fabulous Artists To Watch column. He's introduced me to heaps of great music, and, whenever we do talk, it's most often about--what else?--music. So I asked Mike if he'd bring some of his passion for music (and his uncanny knack for musical treasure finding) to Head-Fi. This piece about Fatoumata Diawara is what I hope will be the first of many from Mike. And with it, yet again, he has introduced me to beautiful music I hadn't previously heard.
Have You Heard Fatoumata Diawara?
Writing about music is a bit like that old parable of the blind men each describing a particular aspect of an elephant. Words just can’t capture the emotions of a guitar or the flutter of a note. So before you read on, please listen to this beautiful song by Fatoumata Diawara. If you like what you hear then the story below will add dimension and life to her voice. If her music doesn’t touch you, then I hope I pick an artist next month that speaks more to your tastes. And while I’m a huge music lover, I’m a very bad guesser. So if there’s someone you want to see profiled, please send suggestions.
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for music from Mali. I can’t help myself. Amadou & Mariam sing in such beautiful harmony that I’m sometimes moved to tears. Ali Farka Touré’s syncopated guitar twang moves me through space and time. And I get lost in Issa Bagayogo’s lilting baritone. There’s just something so exotic and yet so familiar about the music that comes out of that country; it sings to my soul. So imagine my surprise and happiness when I first heard about the new album from Fatoumata Diawara.
Reading about Fatou is bit like reading a fairytale mixed with a Top 10 list of who’s who in world music. She was a back-up singer on Oumou Sangaré’s GRAMMY nominated album “Seya.” She sang with Dee Dee Bridgewater on her GRAMMY winning "Red Earth” album. Her good friend Rokia Traoré, the internationally acclaimed singer, inspired her to take up the guitar and to pen her own songs. Damon Albarn of Blur and the Gorillaz asked her to be part of his Africa Express project. She sang with Herbie Hancock on his GRAMMY winning “The Imagine Project” and she’s the newest artist signed to Nick Gold’s legendary World Circuit Records label.
While her connections are what caught my attention and made me give her album a listen, it was her voice that hooked me. It’s like a sonic tractor-beam. The minute I heard it, I was transfixed. I stopped whatever I was doing and just tried to absorb what I was hearing. The more I listened, the more she pulled me in.
Fatou’s voice drips with emotion. I have no idea what she is saying — she sings in Bambara and Wassoulou — but I can feel what she’s projecting. Her stage presence dominates her recordings and I suspect that is due to her comfort with performing.
By the time she was 6 years old, Fatou was already choreographing routines for her dance troupe. By the time she was 12, she was dancing and performing over 10 hours a day. By 16, an acting career was just beginning and by 17, she landed the lead role by the celebrated director Cheick Omar Sissoko in his 1999 film 'La Genèse'. At 18, she traveled to Paris to perform the classical Greek role of Antigone on stage. And at 19, she was cast as the lead in Dani Kouyaté's film “Sia, The Dream of the Python.” This film was based on a West African legend and it was such an enormous regional success that most Africans still associate Fatou with her character Sia, the young girl who defies tradition.
What came next was a classic tale of life imitating art. As more film offers poured in, Fatou’s family decided that it was time she settled down and married. They forced her to announce that she was abandoning her career on live TV. In Malian society, an unmarried woman is considered a minor and must do what her family sees fit. So when Fatou was presented with the opportunity to work with director Jean-Louis Courcoult and his renowned French theatre company, the Royale de Luxe, her parents left her with no other choice but to run away. At 20, she boarded a plane to Paris and traveled the world for the next six years.
It wasn’t long before her voice was noticed and Jean-Louis Courcoult soon had Fatou singing solos onstage. The more she sang, the more she wanted to sing. When the tour took breaks, Fatou would sing in small Parisian clubs. She took up the guitar so that she could be musically independent and could perform anytime and anywhere. Eventually, she crossed paths with Cheikh Tidiane Seck, a Malian music director and producer who knew her as an actress but was amazed by her music. He convinced her to go back to Mali to record with Oumou Sangaré and Dee Dee Bridgewater. After a few world tours supporting these records as a dancer and a vocalist, Fatou was ready for her own album.
When I asked Nick Gold why he chose to record Fatou, his response was simple and direct. “Oumou Sangaré gave me a demo of Fatou's music after they toured together (Fatou as Oumou's backing singer and dancer.) I already knew Fatou to be an extraordinary performer from those shows with Oumou, but that didn't prepare me for her demos. I was struck by the wonderful melodies — simple, direct and instantly recognizable — sparse guitar playing, a voice full of personality and great harmony vocals. Great stuff.”
“Fatou”, the album, is beautifully made and arranged. The production value and audio quality are as good as the songs themselves. It was recorded at Livingston Studios in London and at Popcorn Lab in Paris. It was recorded and mixed by Sonny and Marc Loisel with additional recordings by Lucas Chauviere, Boris Persikoff and Christophe Marais. It was mastered by Guy Davie at Electric Mastering with additional mastering by Tony Cousins and Bernie Grundman. The project was produced by Nick Gold and Fatou herself.
All songs were written, composed, and arranged by Fatou and she sings and plays guitar on every track. Throughout the album, she is joined by musical legends. Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s musical director, plays drums on the track “Mousso.” GRAMMY award winner Toumani Diabaté plays kora on the track “Wililé.” Nigerian percussionist Sola Akingbola, who is best known for his work with Jamiroquai, plays congas and percussion on 4 tracks. And John Paul Jones and Hilaire Penda hold down the bass lines.
When I asked Nick Gold if it was challenging to capture Fatou’s stage presence and emotions on the album, his reply summed it all up. “I don't think it's possible to capture Fatou's full range on a single recording. This is just the beginning. There's an awful lot more to come from Fatou!”
This beautiful album should be owned by every music lover. To me, Fatou’s words and tones sound like hope and joy. So when I had the chance to ask her a few questions about the recording process, I instead decided to ask about life in general and about the things that I think her music speaks about. If her songs don’t inspire you, maybe this will.
Mike: You've made a beautiful album full of life and emotion. So now that the world spotlight is shining on you and that you have a platform to reach millions of people, what can we all do to help make this world a better place?
Fatou: For people to love one another more, to try to understand each other and to stop fighting. To give love.
Mike: How can I teach my daughter to dance and sing like you?
Fatou: Surround her with music, encouragement and love.
And with that thought in mind, I leave you with one more song. Until next month.
Thank you and here’s to a year filled with great new music!
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Mike Dias is a huge fan of music, of telling stories, and of laughing. And lucky for him, he’s somehow managed to make somewhat of living from this. He designs funny and creative apps for the iPhone. He is the music supervisor for Ultimate Ears and he writes about music and the music industry. He’s always happy to talk about artists, apps, and headphones so feel free to reach out about any of those topics. Email him directly.
If you enjoyed this piece, you’ll probably like some of the other things Mike does too. Get more music recommendations at @michael_a_dias or read more interviews and artist profiles on his Facebook Page. If you’re in the mood for a good laugh, download Mike’s latest free app, Mad Lips, and make all of your photos come to life. And if you’ve ever thought about owning custom Ultimate Ears, talk to Mike first. He’ll answer all your questions in an honest and funny way.
Edited by Mike Dias - 7/30/12 at 11:30am