As with most years, there is a dizzying diversity of world sounds represented at this year's Savannah Music Festival.
A number of top acts from Africa will grace the stage, starting with the double-bill of Malian singer/songwriter Fatoumata Diawara and the Moorish griot singer Noura Mint Seymali and her electrifying band.
Diawara is returning to the festival after a dazzling debut in 2014. Diawara is a multiple Grammy Award nominee for her recent sophomore album “Fenfo” and “Ultimatum,” her collaboration with English dance duo Disclosure.
Born in the Ivory Coast to Malian parents in 1982, Diawara took up acting at 14 and, after gaining some success in popular movies, moved to France to pursue more film and theater roles. Some of her acting highlights include her work with the renowned Royal de Luxe theater troupe and her role in the Academy Award nominated film “Timbuktu,” but singing has always been a primary passion of hers.
“In both things I was singing, too, for myself, especially in theater,” Diawara said. “I was always singing. The voice, since 9-years-old, was something very important in my life. Every emotion surpasses through my voice. It is my reality.”
Diawara began writing her own music at 19 when her theater company asked her to sing some African music for a production, but she was uncomfortable with the idea.
“I told them that I don’t like to interpret songs, that I would like to create, because I have got a lot to say, I have got a lot to express,” Diawara said. “It was a very strange period of my life because I had been running away from my family and it was a new life, totally, to me, and I couldn’t share that by talking to people… I was needing to sing or to write.”
Since her debut album made waves in 2011, Diawara has had a string of fruitful collaborations with many international stars, such as Oumou Sangaré, Roberto Fonseca, Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn and even Paul McCartney. Working with so many different artists was a learning experience for Diawara, who, growing up in Mali, hadn’t been exposed to many types of music.
“I grew up with Malian music,” Diawara said. “That’s why I used to sing in Bambara because it’s where I feel much more comfortable. I don’t lie when I sing Bambara. Singing in Bambara was something important to me. When I started to express myself, it was the key of my freedom.”
Diawara applied her new knowledge and experience to “Fenfo,” which is the strongest realization of her music, yet.
“I’m trying to create my own style, my own way, my vision of music, as a woman composing, doing arrangement by herself, being involved 200 percent,” Diawara said. “I see myself as a survivor; as a woman coming from a poor family, not having any support to be what I am today. I would like to change our parents mind, say, ‘Let’s except the children as they are because they are all different.’ I was super different from all my father’s children and nobody could understand me. If wasn’t that strong to understand myself and be so determined to write my own story, I wouldn’t be here trying to represent as a woman.”
Noura Mint Seymali
Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritania and follows the Moorish griot tradition, a hereditary class of poet/musicians.
“In traditional society the griot was journalist, cultural historian, and that role persists to today,” Matthew Tinari, Seymali’s drummer and producer, said. “Some of the music that they are singing records the social history, in a way. Griots perform at weddings and ceremonies and they are very respected in Mauritanian society.”
Seymali has broadened the tradition and found a way to reach international audiences with a unique, fiery, psychedelic version of traditional griot music. Her albums “Tzenni” and “Arbina,”on Glitterbeat Records, reached No. 1 on World Music charts, and she was named “Best Female Artist in North Africa” at African Union’s 2014 All Africa Music Awards.
“There is definitely a different repertoire that we arrived at for an international stage, but it is very intertwined with her upbringing and her musical heritage as a griot,” Tenari explained. “In a lot ways she’s still in that role, even on the international stage, but she has adapted the music to a bigger festival stage and has written songs that are little bit more general in meaning.”
The band’s sounds are built around Seymali’s commanding voice, her ardin (a type of Mauritania harp made of calabash with 10 to 16 strings that is only played by female griots), the propulsive rhythms of bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Tinari, and her husband, Jeich Ould Chighaly’s, wild electric guitar, which has extra frets added to the top of the neck to reproduce the quarter tones that are a part of the Mauritania melodic tradition.
“Noura worked with a lot of different ensembles over the years and we settled this formation as a means to highlight the guitar and voice the best,” Tinari said. “In the past, she worked with a bigger band that had keyboard and a western guitar, and eventually we found that less is more.”
The griot tradition is thriving in Mauritania, but interest in it has grown outside of the Northwestern African country.
“That’s probably why it hasn’t gone outside is because a lot of the traditional musicians are still able to make a living playing in a traditional context,” Tinari said. “So there’s not as much of an impetus for them... to stray outside of the domestic market. But, it is evolving and more people are interested in music from abroad and Noura is certainly at the forefront of that movement and is the most well traveled musician from Mauritania ever.”