Fatoumata Diawara was a formidable stage presence, exuding warmth and charisma this past Sunday night in New York. A rising star from Mali, she shimmered on stage in an orange and yellow outfit. Her music combines the Wassoulou sound from Southwestern Mali with rock and funk. Wassoulou is characterized by strong female singers who sing with passion, often about women’s issues and by traditional instruments such as the kamalen n'goni (a six-stringed harp). She introduced one song, “Bissa”, as about arranged marriages and implied that women have the right to chose who they marry: “As African women, we want to be free.”
Fatoumata is unafraid to speak about the issues that matter to her. As the set progressed, she opened up and the audience got to see her dancing. With unbounded athleticism, she spun in circles several times during one number, responding with an electric energy to the lead guitar as it rocked out. She hypnotized the audience with the flash of her red and yellow scarf, and her ecstatic dance.
Fatoumata was just one of a group of powerful women performers who graced the GlobalFEST stage this year, including Martha Redbone and Christine Salem. All hold in common a unique musical voice and a fearless stage presence. GlobalFEST is a festival that brings together twelve groups from around the world for one night in New York. Broad in scope, this year’s GlobalFEST attracted artists representing diverse musical genres from the funk-infused flamenco of Spain to the Maloya, a traditional music which I will get back to in a moment.
Now in its tenth year, it has the power to attract both avid music fans and those with vested interests in the world music business. GlobalFEST’s co-producers Shanta Thake, Bill Bragin, and Isabel Soffer are known in the industry to have their ears close to what is current and vital in world music. Many of the acts who have previously performed at GlobalFEST have gone on to become stars, Daby Touré and Sara Tavares, to name just two.
When I asked Shanta Thake about GlobalFEST’s purpose, she said, “It’s an opportunity to show presenters the energy that an audience can bring to a specific artist, which gives them an idea of how a show may go over in their towns. It presents a broad range of musicians who may be superstars in their home countries, such as Kailash Kher in India, but unknown beyond them. In 2012, GlobalFEST incorporated as a non-profit organization. This means we can provide long-term support to new musicians in the field, for example, by connecting them to agents or, through our Touring Fund, with financial assistance to play in States beyond New York. GlobalFEST is also about inspiring cultural dialogue and sparking interest in an audience to learn about different cultures.”
In a more intimate setting, Christine Salem, from Réunion Island (in the Indian ocean near Madagascar), made her New York City debut. Christine is one of a few female musicians who performs in a genre called Maloya, sometimes used as a form of social protest. It is a percussive music, which emanated from the slaves of Réunion, and was formerly banned on the island.
Christine is a small, thin figure, yet her vocal was forceful and determined. I was reminded of Nina Simone. She sang in Creole, Malagasy, Comoran, and Swahili. Three other percussionists provided eager vocal and rhythmic responses to her performance. The drums included the doum doum (a bass-sounding drum) to Christine’s favorite, the kayanm, made out of sugar cane flower and its stems, which makes a versatile and textured percussive sound. At times the rhythms were so fast that it was hard to differentiate them. The bass drums struck by mallets shuddered the floor boards. The music works well even without melodic instruments, because Christine’s voice is so heartfelt and entrancing.
With the atmosphere of support and the platform that GlobalFEST provides newcomers, there is no stopping these women. Once women were a delicate, invisible backdrop to male voices in world music; now they are singing on their own terms and making unique sounds.