It was the end of a hot day, and having arrived in Ortaköy early for the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara's concert, I sauntered down to the square by the Bosphorus that is dominated by the Greater Mecidiye Mosque – the one that juts out into the waterway close by the First Bosphorus Bridge. Built by the Ottoman-Armenian architect Nigoğos Balyan for Sultan Abdülmecid in 1853, this highly ornate structure exhibits features of neo-Baroque architecture. Choosing a spot on its northern side, which I had never before examined at close quarters, I marvelled at the richness of the decorative carvings in the stonework and the tall windows set high up in concave indentations in the walls. I then found myself a seat among some among Arab families, many of whom were pushing prams, taking selfies or eating baked potatoes off pieces of aluminium foil while keeping marauding cats at bay. How Ortaköy had changed since my visits to Hasan, a friend who kept a bicycle-repair shop overlooking the square by the Bosphorus, in the early 1980s! Now cafés and restaurants had built gaudy extensions that ate away metres of that square and fixed one with a hectoring neon glare. Meanwhile, every one of the shops in the streets leading down to the sea was selling the kind of items that bring joy to the hearts of tourists (of whom there were, it goes without saying, a large number milling about).
It was difficult to suppress waves of nostalgia and alienation, but I managed it, and duly presented myself at the gates of the Esma Sultan Mansion, the concert's venue, a few minutes before 9 pm. This mansion, known in Turkish as Esma Sultan Yalısı, was built as a wedding present for Esma Sultan, one of the daughters of Sultan Abdülaziz, in or around 1889. (In fact, there is a rather gruesome connection between Sultan Abdülaziz and Ortaköy, in that a few days after he had been deposed in a palace coup in 1876 he was murdered in one of the nearby Feriye Palaces.) Poor Esma Sultan, who was 3 years old at the time, lived to be just 26. Her mansion, built originally by Sarkis Balyan, the younger brother of Nigoğos, was devastated by fire in 1975. Its shell was subsequently bought by The Marmara Hotels and renovated by them. Having reached the area where a stage had been set up close to the seashore, I perched myself on a long, low block of wood that served as the containing wall for the line of thickly-planted trees that faced the burnt-out, brick-built mansion (there were, of course, no seats). As a result, during the concert I had a grandstand view of the audience’s knees, calves and footwear.
First to come on stage – not long after 9, and thus with admirable punctuality – were the backing group, which consisted of a drummer, a keyboard player and two guitarists. When Ms. Diawara herself made her appearance, dressed in a multicoloured outfit that included a rather fetching multicoloured turban, the band immediately began to lay down a window-shattering, synapse-blasting bass throbbing. Under the thump-thump-thump of this pitiless assault, which put one in mind of the artillery bombardments that preceded the Battle of Kursk (the cataclysmic 1943 tank battle that signalled the final defeat of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union), I was prompted to fear for the safety of my internal organs. What would happen if my spleen were to be ruptured owing to sympathetic vibration, my pancreas punctured by the relentless pounding, or my teeth, jiggled from their gums by the Doomsday decibels, were to fall out under the auditory onslaught?
I had listened to Fatoumata Diawara’s songs on YouTube (she sings in Bambara, the main language of Mali), and was thus expecting some gentle World Music with tinklings from her native country’s stringed instruments and tasteful cross-rhythmic tappings from drums ingeniously crafted from gourds. Instead it seemed I was to be exposed to a hard-rock Ragnarok. I stood it for the first six numbers, and left. Having got this admission of geriatric lack of stuffing out the way, I must now duly apologise to the İKSV, the organisers of the concert – and indeed of the whole Istanbul Jazz Festival – for my ungrateful behaviour (after all, they had had the kindness to supply me with a free ticket), and comment on the performance.
Ms Diawara describes herself as a defender of all those who do not have (or rather, are not allowed to have) a voice – that is, women and children – and she dedicated her fourth song to women everywhere, urging them to ‘stand in their power’. Her sixth song was dedicated to the cause of freedom for the people of Mali, and here she engaged in some unusual but highly energetic – and not a little entertaining – dancing that drew well-deserved admiration from the audience. (I can vouch for this as by this point I had emerged from my perch under the trees and was standing up.) I saw that for this feisty number Diawara, undoubtedly for practical reasons, had abandoned the guitar that up to then she had been playing while she sang. In fact she had performed surprisingly well on this instrument, thus supplementing her undeniable vocal talents and commanding stage presence with some impressive instrumental solos. I do not know whether it is she herself who creates the musical arrangements we hear on her videos, but she must surely have considerable talent in this area as well, and the sound she creates when manifesting her World Music persona is a pleasing one. Here are some examples of her work. First, her widely-acclaimed first album, Fatou (2011).
Now, here she is in concert at the 30th Africa Festival in Würzburg in 2018.
There is a reason why Fatoumata Diawara makes so much of the plight of her people, for in 2012 there was a coup d’état in Mali, prompted by the government’s perceived inability to repel incursions by jihadist fighters from Libya, which lies to the northeast of the country, beyond Niger and the intervening Sahara desert. The resulting confusion was soon exploited by these very same jihadists, who launched a full-scale invasion. In the following song, which is entitled ‘Mali-ko’, Ms Diawara and some of Mali’s most celebrated musicians lament the situation in their country and appealing for peace. (The names of the participants are given in the notes under the YouTube version.) The subtitles are in French, presumably because France is currently Ms Diawara’s country of residence.
Timbuktu (2014), one of the many films in which she has appeared as an actress – others being Genesis (1999) and Sia, The Dream of the Python (2002) – is a protest against the takeover of northern Mali by Islamist militants whose attitude to music and musicians is brutal in the extreme, as the Wikipedia entry for ‘Music of Mali’ confirms. Music was outlawed in August 2012, and most musicians in the North fled the country alongside an estimated 500,000 fellow Malians.
Now, to lighten the mood, here is some of Mali’s traditional music. For those interested in pursuing this complex but rewarding topic, here is a link to the ‘Music of Mali’ Wikipedia article. First, here is Oumou Sangaré, one of the singers who appear in the previous video, in ‘Mali Nialé’. Her parents emigrated to Bamako (Mali’s capital) from the region known as Wassoulou, which gave its name to a style of West African popular music performed mostly by women. In fact, Fatoumata Diawara says that her own music blends Wassoulou traditions with musical styles she has picked up on her travels.
The ngoni is a West African guitar, popular in the region surrounding the Wassoulou River in south western Mali, north western Ivory Coast and eastern Guinea, that has a body made of wood or calabash. Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that the ngoni ‘is believed to have evolved into the banjo in North America after enslaved Mandé people were brought there.’ Here is a video about the evolution of the banjo from the ngoni.
Furthermore, it seems that ‘Wassoulou music is one of the two forms of West African music that ethnomusicologists believe to be the origin of the American blues.’ Some evidence to support this theory is provided by the fact that just as in blues, the scale used in ngoni music has a flattened seventh note – the so-called ‘blue note’. In the following video, Senegalese ngoni-player Watcha is performing ‘La Paix de l’Afrique’.
Mamadou Diabaté, who comes from a family of ‘jeli’ (traditional musicians and orators who recount the glories of the past), plays the kora, an instrument with a harplike sound.
Finally, here are some players of the djembé (a Malian drum) accompanying some athletic dancers. The movements made by the lady who appears at the beginning of the video are not dissimilar to those of Ms Diawara in her own dance number. No ‘Don’t try this at home’ warning – DO try this at home!
Main image (top): Fatoumata Diawara performing in Ortaköy at the Istanbul Jazz Festival, July 2023. Photo: Salih Üstündağ