It was 2011, in the green fields of Wiltshire where I was lucky indeed to have encountered an enigmatic young female Malian singer called Fatoumata Diawara. She took to the WOMAD stage on a bright sunny afternoon, with a huge smile and dressed in traditional Wassoulou costume and with an acoustic guitar. Her small band provided an evocative wash of sound that captivated the audience, as they promoted her just released debut album simply titled ‘Fatou’. For me she was the hit of that year. She followed that by joining Damon Albarn on his Africa Express UK tour and I saw her again in the confines of Middlesborough Town Hall later and again, for me, she stole the show with her beauty, passion and melody. Despite not singing in English, the sheer joy and power of the songs shone through. Since then she's toured the world and played a landmark show in front of a huge crowd at Glastonbury in 2013. She acts, she sings and she's an ambassador for her country, continent and music.
I suppose you would classify Fatoumata’s music as ‘world music’. It’s a frustratingly vague term but it somehow satisfies our insatiable need to pigeonhole, label and identify; it helps us to feel safe in the knowledge that we really know what things are and what they mean. So we have genres like rock, funk, soul, disco, ska, soul, blues, jazz, blues-jazz (and jazz-blues), classical, punk, reggae, even (to quote Neil Young) metal-folk-protest and of course dear old pop. Perhaps some of these terms are sometimes useful, they might even tell us something about what the music sounds like or, at least, we have some idea of who might actually play it. I can't be sure but I think some time in the early 1970's there were whisperings about something called World Music. I think I first spotted it in the grubby smudged pages of the New Musical Express applied to an African band named Osibissa. Folk Roots magazine defined World Music as "local music from out there" which tells us zilch about what it actually is, or again more importantly, what it sounds like.
I've been watching World Music acts live and buying records since the late 80's and my friends often seem baffled by my affection for weird African music, especially because I'm very much a "lyrics guy" and, for the most part, in the World Music I listen to, lyrics are totally unimportant for me because I don't understand them. Instead, I find that the music alone is deep, evocative and satisfying. Seeing the mighty Tamikrest at the Sage a while ago I was left in no doubt that they sang ‘rebel songs’. You could hear the angst and fear in their powerful voices and attacking guitar lines, I didn't need words to discern that, just the will to listen and think.
Some would credit Peter Gabriel with the creation of the World Music genre for it was he who, in 1980, who teamed up with a bunch of friends and launched WOMAD (The World of Music Art and Dance) as a concept. It was almost a still birth too as the first WOMAD festival in 1982 lost heavily and it was only a reunion gig with his old pals in Genesis that saved it. This was in spite of a near-legendary performance from Echo & The Bunnymen who joined with the mighty Drummers of Burundi (rechristened by McCullogh "Echo & The Burundi Men" for the occasion) for a thumping take of ‘Zimbo’ (AKA ‘Over The Wall’) that's available on one of the WOMAD compilation albums and on You Tube. Since then WOMAD has grown exponentially and today runs festivals across the world every year including the annual bash at Charlton Park in Wilstshire. WOMAD always takes on the last weekend in July and I've attended more than a dozen times over the years and count myself lucky to have seen countless fantastic artists there that I would never had the chance to see otherwise. The array of talent drawn from across the world is staggering but outside of those festival fields what influence does it have? An episode of the Alan Sugar fronted BBC show ‘The Apprentice’ was set on the green fields of WOMAD and Sugar described attendees, rather uncharitably, as "20,000 vegetarian nutters”, which might underline how niche World Music remains to those resolutely occupying safer musical ground.
After WOMAD, World Music’s next big leap forward into mainstream consciousness came with the release of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland.’ Simon had journeyed to South Africa in search of something new and what he found was what he termed “the indestructible beat of Soweto". Simon, controversially at that time, disregarded calls for cultural boycott and instead collaborated with local musicians to produce the smash hit album that had African pop at the centre of its beating heart and made the Zulu choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo households names across the UK, USA and Europe.
More recently Angelique Kidjo, a Beninese singer, released a dramatic reimagining of Talking Heads classic 1980 album ‘Remain in Light’. The original album was a mighty work that absorbed and restructured Fela Kuti's thumping powerful Afrobeat alongside some Hi-Life guitars and South African beats and some dark funk grooves that sounded like the coming apocalypse. Kidjo has dived in and cross fertilised David Byrne and Bryan Eno's work with some real African soul and created what might even be seen as a hybrid of a hybrid. It's a stunning work that deserves the widest audience possible.
It's clear, but hard for me to understand that many of the African artists I've seen that would fall under that dreaded World Music banner aren't household names, despite the fact that they have talent in bucket loads. Back in the late 1980's The Bhundu Boys looked to me like they were going to break through as a thrilling Zimbabwean guitar band who played infectious highlife music driven by frantic melodic guitars, scattering drums and dancing bass that they called "Jit". To see the Bhundu Boys live was like musical ecstasy and would have you grinning from ear-to-ear throughout the gig. Lead by the enigmatic Biggie Tembo they were described by DJ Andy Kershaw as "the greatest dance band ever". John Peel was reputedly reduced to tears when he experienced their exuberant live show for the first time. I saw the Bhundu's many times across the 80's and early 90's most memorably for shows at Glastonbury where they blew the place apart. At their late night show in 1989 the crowd were crazy and wild dancing ensued and my buddy was so impressed he ripped his coat up! A couple of months later I saw them again at Liverpool University in another magical frantic dance bonanza. I bumped into Biggie in the bar before the gig and enthused about his Glastonbury performance. He laughed uproariously, clapped me on my back and said "This one will be better my friend!". The place was packed to the rafters and the Bhundu's, as ever, played a storming show with a mass of delirious dancing punters. Not long after that they were supporting Madonna at Wembley Stadium and they released an album with English lyrics on the giant Warner Brothers label - they were on the cusp of big fame. But it wasn't to be. Their second album ‘Pamberi’ flopped and between 1991-93 three of the band contracted AIDS and died. Biggie had been sacked as he fell into alcoholism and mental illness and he tragically hung himself in 1995 in a psychiatric hospital where he had been sectioned. It's a modern day tragedy and leaves me wondering if it stymied the chances of success for this World Music artists that followed.
In the early 90's in Newcastle a three day African music event called "Harambe Africa" was initiated and I helped out in the running of the festival. Our small band of world music warriors brought Yossou N'Dour, Salief Keita, Black Umfolossi, Fela Kuti and S E Rogie to Tyneside. High quality acts but the crowds were thin on the ground and the festival only ran for two or three years. WOMAD though continued on its merry way and brings in an amazing array of talent every year to their country site at Charlton Park near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. I've count myself fortunate to have seen scores of astonishing acts from across the world, amongst them Fatoumata Diawara.
It's six years now since that debut album and her second album, entitled ‘Fenfo’ (which roughly translates as ‘Something to Say’), has just been released on World Circuit Records. But is anybody listening? Here's someone who's played on big stages and is offering something different, something that combines the traditional with the contemporary and who has an eye on the future. Fatoumata takes traditional elements of African sounds like the chiming guitars and scattering drums of the Bhundu Boys and combines them with treated vocals and percussion and looped beats. ‘Kanpur Dan Yem’, track 4 on the album, highlights all these elements and manages to pull off that trick of being contemporary and traditional at the same time. The title track commences with some lilting guitar and a soulful vocal with stuttering percussion. Fatoumata's voice really shines here and what her words mean matters little to me as it produces a feeling that can't fail. There's a yearning and you can hear her reaching out for understanding. Then we move to the funked up modern sounds of ‘Negue Negue’ which again has that Talking Heads feel and wouldn't be out of place in the best nightclub in town, with its driving rhythm and chopping guitar. It all sounds very modern and exciting, doesn’t it! ‘Mama’ hardly needs an explanation from me it's a universal theme in any language and Fatoumata's voice carries the love that we all feel when we think of family and close ones. With a gentle acoustic guitar, light strings and that soaring voice we get the meaning straight to our souls. ‘Bony a’ is another rolling train of a song with crashing percussion and that Hi-Life guitar jangling though. Fatoumata's voice sores and if you listen hard enough you can hear a little touch of Reggae in the mix. Terrific stuff and I’d urge you to check her out.
Music is much more accessible today and most, if not all, of the artists I've mentioned here, can be checked out and listened to for free online. That isn't nearly as much fun as raking through old vinyl at Probe Records in Liverpool or Stern's African Records in London as I did way back then but it's a lot cheaper and can reveal musical riches beyond imagining. Give yourself a holiday from your Western flavoured musical pallet and jump in to this musical potpourri and sample the delights of the world starting with Fatoumata's album and branching out from there. Good luck, enjoy the trip then this summer - maybe think WOMAD!