Acoustic Sounds

Fatoumata Diawara

London KO



Album Cover of London KO by Fatoumata Diawara

Label: Wagram Music, Montuno Producciones Y Eventos, SL, 3éme Bureau

Produced By: Fatoumata Diawara, Daniel Florestano, Damon Albarn, -M-

Engineered By: Davide Lasala, Andrea Fognini, Florian Monchatre, Samuel Egglenton, Robin Hood, John Krischer, Hugo Zeitoun, Marcus Williams, Tyler McDiarmid

Mixed By: Stephen Sedgwick, Marlon B

Mastered By: Carlos Freitas

Lacquers Cut By: Marie Pieprzownik

By: Mark Dawes

December 28th, 2023



A Knockout LP From Mali

Fatoumata Diawara's "London KO" released on vinyl

Wassoulou music is generally performed by women and is a form originating in the cultural area of Wassoulou (incorporating areas of southern Mali, eastern Guinea and northern Côte d’Ivoire). While their names may not be so familiar in Europe and North America, performers such as Oumou Sangaré, Nahawa Doumbia and Fatoumata Diawara are superstars in west Africa. Mali is an especially rich source of incredible musical forms and even more incredible instrumental performers; kora players such as the virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, guitarists like the late Ali Farka Touré, and contemporary vocalists like Rokia Koné have demonstrated exceptional cultural and musical importance.

Fatoumata Diawara’s compositions merge with traditional rock elements and guest vocalists to create a blend of Bambara, Anglophone, Francophone and some sampled parts which open the singer’s music to a wider audience. All the songs on “London KO” are bracingly short (all well under four minutes) and featuring 14 tracks, this is a broad-ranging and diverse collection. Diawara is a regular and open-minded collaborator with Western musicians - her sinuous vocal on twitchy garage track “Douha (Mali Mali)” by English production duo Disclosure is a joyful slice of dancefloor sensuality, while her contributions to the 2018 “Lamomali” LP by French artist -M- (Mathieu Chedid), and Toumani Diabaté & Sidiki Diabaté bring a soulful and malleable vocal presence to a pulsing world music collaboration - described as “a bridge between worlds”.

Diawara’s voice is mid-ranged and often keening, with a delightful ‘catch’ and a rhythmic, rolling authenticity. Her voice is enchanting, engaging and easy to follow. Her lyrics are sometimes in Bambara, sometimes French and occasionally English. Her voice does not occupy the vast multi-octave expressive range of Oumou Sangaré, and does not reach for the same level of emotive transmission. Equally, there is little of the sleek, slinky sound of Rokia Koné.

In this album she showcases a living, textured sound. She leads this band with a soft touch; she is undoubtedly the solo musician and main composer of this album, but she creates space for a diversity of guest musicians and vocalists. While the bulk of the rhythm section on these songs is rock kit drums and electric bass, there is also the sweetness of the choral backing vocals and the delicate fingerpicking of the ngoni, a small three-stringed instrument resembling a miniature banjo. The ngoni is given to young musicians to begin their journey towards learning the 23 string kora, but is an instrument of range and vitality used as a solo or ensemble instrument by players such as Bassekou Kouyate on albums such as “Ba Power”.

Damon Albarn is a substantial contributor to this album, as co-producer, songwriter and performer. I was never a huge fan of Blur, but I am most attracted to the songs on this album where Albarn is involved in the instrumentation and production. He has matured into an engaging collaborator with artists ranging from the cheeky pop-rap of Gorillaz to the Africa Express incarnation of Terry Riley’s “In C”, developed along with musicians as diverse as Brian Eno, Andi Toma of Mouse On Mars, and an all-star line-up of kora, ngoni and flute players including Modibo Diawara and Kalifa Koné. Albarn’s contributions to “London KO” add a lively electronic edge to the otherwise standard rock palette - and without this tonal shift, the tracks could have sounded a little lacking in variety, instrumentally one-dimensional. 

Diawara’s guitar style is gritty, robust and earthy - you never need to worry about too much showboating or angst-ridden solos. The chunky, plummy tone of her electric guitar is always close to breaking up, with the crackling, sizzling feel of humbuckers edging along the path to overdrive (she is seated beside an Epiphone SG-style instrument in the cover photo). Her licks are here modulated often by a wah pedal, opening and closing the tone in a very subtle and natural mode. This is not psych-rock indulgence; it sounds like her guitar sound is being carried by a shifting wind. Where the rhythm section is composed of live instrumentation rather than electronic, the bass of Alune Wade and drums of Yves William Ombe Monkama provide a solidity and depth which will doubtless provide a satisfying backdrop in a live setting (I look forward to experiencing this in February 2024, when Diawara and Amazones d’Afrique will appear at Glasgow’s annual festival of folk, world and traditional music, Celtic Connections).

Opener “Nsera” is thick with synth bass, a rolling kit drum rhythm, and a choral part which gives way to a Damon Albarn vocal which is more affecting than I expected. Diawara’s vocal is emphatic and carries a rippling melody, invoking the importance of homecoming in the lyrics. “Somaw” has a gritty guitar riff, a stiff downbeat, potent bassline, pulsing chorus, and a soulful, dusty vocal by Diawara on the theme of family. Guest vocalist Angie Stone provides a sultry verse in English which resonates with resignation and experience. “Sete” features a soft guitar theme, a delicious melody and a slow hand rhythm. Choral parts by Brooklyn Youth Chorus are sumptuous, and Diawara and co-producer -M- succeed in melding these complex elements into an affecting, sweet song which never reveals its dark subject matter until one investigates the lyrics - a challenge to families who still want to practice FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) on young daughters. “Seguen” features a thick, deep bassline performed by Albarn and spare yet propulsive drums by Will Calhoun. 

“Massa Den” is dominated by the familiar high-tone French spoken/whispered voice of -M-, along with keening vocals by Diawara. With a pulsing 4/4 beat and a minor-key composition, this track sounds like a remix; the filtered keys and reverberant guitar solos are more self-consciously “dancefloor pop” in style, but it works well. “Mogokan” is an album favourite, opening with a chunky rhythm track and taut bass, rimshots and an ascending, velvety vocal by Diawara. The rippling ngoni, emphatic chorus, and verse by Ghanaian rapper M.anifest combine seductively and coherently. Straight away, this track feels like a rootsy and homely cut - not perhaps trying to create “the bridge between worlds” which -M- successfully choreographed in “Lamomali”, but to represent one’s own world. “Blues” is led by piano from Cuban musician Robert Fonseca - the ornamental bluesy piano, rapid shuffling rhythm and English lyrics are less convincing to me. It is expertly performed, and Diawara’s voice sounds as enchanting and declarative as ever, but this is my least favourite track on the album - it’s a little overwrought for me. “Moussoya” features arpeggiated guitar and a sweet, blossoming choral backing. The song floats along at walking pace, with Diawara providing a vocal performance of great depth and feeling, her sensitive guitar parts subtly augmenting the interweaving vocal lead and lovely choral work. It is a delicious piece that brings a welcome change to the pace and feel of the album.

“Netara” opens side C with a sensuous vocal line, a slow sinuous bass groove and bluesy piano - almost rolling over into a neo-soul feel. A muted guitar rhythm, rolling ngoni phrases and sleek production are complemented by the sophisticated vocal layering which is a characteristic sound of this album. “Yada” leaps into life with pumping bass, a kicking rock rhythm, accented overdriven guitar and soaring vocals. A robust, distorted guitar solo by Diawara presents a characterful line through the song. “Tolon” offers resonant drums and bright guitar licks playing off distorted, fiery guitar lines. The sweet, syncopated vocals feature guest artist Yemi Alade.

“Dambe” (or ‘virtue’) is an electronic, dubby composition with heavy synth bass and characteristic space echoes. Punchy drum machine zaps, finger-snaps and plucked synth lines fill out the melodic line. Another Albarn co-production, his contribution provides a real evolution of the sound, with depth and sonic texture coming to the fore. “Dambe” is a lovely piece of work which stands out in this collection. “Dakan” features swelling guitar lines with Diawara’s gritty tone, a soulful bluesy rhythm line, crackling vocal and fine layered harmonies. The guitar licks are played at the neck with a plummy tone, and as usual, Diawara is never showy or virtuosic - she provides compelling solo lines within the ensemble in both her vocal and instrumental contributions. “Maya” completes side D with a heartfelt ending to the album, fading out with warm repetition and is a pleasing companion piece to “Moussoya”. Sleepily slow-paced, featuring piano by Albarn, subtle guitar accompaniment by Diawara, thoughtful strings and no drums, the song has a euphoric vocal line with a sumptuous tone. While it is just a superficial resemblance, there is a haunting reminiscence in this composition to Brian Eno’s “Another Green Day”. 

The vinyl sound is satisfyingly deep, with balanced lightness in the vocals and a bright and airy, noise-free pressing. Run-out etchings “MPZ-TR” suggest that the lacquers were cut by French engineer Marie Pieprzownik, implying that the pressing is by Translab, Paris. It is (to my ears) more engaging than the Tidal digital files, which feel a bit clinical - there is coherence and potency in the vinyl playback which is missing in the stream. The pulsing bass and drums mesh well with a pleasing depth and width in the harmonic vocal parts. The sleek clarity of the streaming files seems to diminish the authenticity and liveliness of the recording. The double vinyl presentation is vibrant in a neon blue with multi-coloured labels; the gatefold sleeve is a luscious and quirkily-designed place to investigate while the four sides play out, with comprehensive credits and high-contrast, blazing colour photos of Diawara in frankly incredible outfits. The accompanying video works for “Nsera” and “Sete” are slick visions of Afro-Futurism, art-fashion and sunburnt landscapes - for any readers new to Diawara’s work, the Wassoulou sound, or Malian music, start with these video clips and then get lost in the musical powerhouse that is Mali.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: LC-24760

Pressing Plant: Translab, Paris


Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Presentation: Multi LP


  • 2023-12-28 05:44:48 PM

    Jack Pot wrote:

    Thanks for a wonderful overview of contemporary Mali music. The video clips are works of art. And Fatoumata's voice is indeed delightful. A must buy. I can also recommend Ballaké Sissoko on kora and Vincent Segal on cello. Their Chamber Music LP is never far from my record player.

    • 2023-12-29 08:41:01 AM

      Mark Dawes wrote:

      Thank you Jack Pot. I haven’t heard Chamber Music - I will seek it out. Ballaké Sissoko is one half of the “New Ancient Strings” performance above - one of the greatest instrumental recordings I have heard. A close second would be Toumani & Sidiki by the father-and-son Diabaté duo. For more superb kora playing, have a listen to Seckou Keita’s “22 Strings” - some beautiful songwriting which showcases a truly excellent instrumentalist. Best wishes, Mark