Fatoumata Diawara @ Tramway, Glasgow, 31 Jan

On the last evening of January, Fatoumata Diawara and co provide some much-needed musical catharsis

Live Review by Niamh Carey | 05 Feb 2020

Celtic Connections likes to go out with a bang, and this year is certainly no exception. Tonight, Tramway hosts two acts that offer fresh interpretations of their respective musical heritages, providing much-needed catharsis on this last evening of January.

Opening the night are Finnish folk duo VILDÁ, delivering a hypnotic set of primal drum beats and long accordion laments that bring us deep into the blue hills of the Finnish folk canon. Both women bring a strange presence to the stage – singer Hildá Länsman dances wildly while Viivi Maria Saarenkylä passionately plays a distorted accordion – but it is totally charming, and a good dose of Scandinavian storytelling you didn’t know you were missing.

VILDÁ finish up, and as the blue stage lights shift to a vibrant orange, Fatoumata Diawara regally strolls on stage. Armed with an electric guitar and a smiling pierced lip, she chooses a gentle opener for the show in Don Do, a beautiful traditional Bambara lament. It’s a track that eases the audience into a set that slowly and masterfully builds energy, but it’s not long before Diawara and co have the audience ramped up to almost hysterical levels of excitement.

Diawara is part of a rich canon of Malian musicians whose delicious pentatonic-scale guitar and emotive vocals have been globally revered for decades. Tonight the band gives pentatonic emotion aplenty, but Diawara offers her own take on her musical heritage, fusing the classic magic of Malian folk with rock, funk, jazz and everything in between.

Diawara’s voice is both razor-sharp and considered, singing beautiful, her instantly catchy melodies interplay with labyrinthine guitar scales and complex rhythms. Her guitar solos are often reverb-heavy and performed with the gusto you might expect from a heavy metal musician; her dance interludes are gleeful interpretations of traditional sub-Saharan moves. It’s a delight to watch such a mash-up of styles play out on stage.

But her audacious presence extends far beyond ecstatic movements and epic guitar solos: song topics range from Timbuktu’s ban on education under extremist rule to female genital mutilation, while other tracks exude so much unfiltered joy that it’s impossible to imagine, in that moment, that any hardship really exists in the world. It’s this outspoken nature balanced with a deep appreciation of Mali’s musical legacy that makes her such a rare and unmissable artist.

By the end of the set, every single audience member is moving in a collective frenzy as we follow Diawara’s choreography commands: "Everyone get down low! Now jump! Now to the left!" There’s a feeling that the Malian singer could tell us to do just about anything and we would blindly follow. At this point, we are most happy to comply.

This show was part of the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow