Every April, the delicate pink blossoms send natives of the DMV, and thousands of tourists, into a frenzy of cultural activities. But the entire month before is the turf of the Francophonie DC Cultural Festival, which brings concerts, cuisine, films, literary salons, and lectures for all ages to venues around the city every March, culminating with La Grande Fête de la Francophonie, a unique embassy party held at La Maison Française on Reservoir Road NW.
Scheduled for the last Friday in March, la Grande Fête gathers embassies from some of the 59 member countries and 26 observer countries to showcase food, drinks and cultural displays.
Since 2001, more than 40 embassies and partners (including the Alliance Française de Washington DC and the Smithsonian Associates) have collaborated to present an array of experiences all rooted in the Francophone culture from Africa and the Americas to the Middle East.
As one of the well-kept secrets of the Capital city, the grand finale always sells out early, treating the diaspora communities, Francophiles and global citizens to the cultural smorgasbord which prominently features music from one of those countries.
This year, the West African nation of Guinea was featured, with one of its brightest musical contributors. Natu Camara, who along with her multinational band, brought her fresh new sound to Washington in her debut performance of her first solo recording “Dimedi.”
“It is my first time playing in D.C. and I was amazed by the warm welcome I had,” said the talented singer-songwriter and guitarist. “To see the audience have as much fun as we were having on stage is priceless. I was very emotional when my country made sure that I know they are proud of me and all these African sisters and brothers who surrounded me with love. [The audience was] a mixed crowd from different countries, different cultures sharing that moment.”
Natu Camara may not be well known in D.C., but she comes from a long musical career forged in her native country. As a member of the Ideal Black Girls hip-hop group, she already has two albums with them under her belt. A pioneer in her homeland, Ideal Black Girls was the first West African female hip-hop group.
“We stood for women’s rights, girls’ rights, girls’ respect, some would say we were extremely feminist,” Camara said. “In everything we would do we wanted to have more women than men. We created the only all woman’s festival, Rapsodie, in 2004, with a second edition in 2005. We hired only girls, I trained 24 girls. On our tours everywhere we went we didn’t see girls, we figured there were girls but they didn’t get help, so we invited girls from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast.”
She later married and moved to New York City, setting her music aside. In 2013, she found herself alone in New York after the death of her husband, speaking only French and having nothing to turn to. It was then that she picked up the guitar her late husband had given her, and breathed new life into music, forged by her experiences in Guinea, the United States and informed by her life observations.
After four years of dedicating herself strictly to her music, she had written more than 30 songs attracting the attention of Malian superstar Salif Keita, whose influence and associations helped her to record her latest album “Dimedi” in Mali.
While people noshed on traditional dishes from Burundi, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Switzerland, Canada, Madagascar and Morocco, to name a few of the countries providing sustenance and libations, Camara was winning over the audience with her songs sung in Soussou, Fulani and English. Clearly, her words needed no translation as people were feeling the vibes of her brand of music.
“My music is a fusion of soul, Afro-rock, Afro-pop,” she said. “Some call it world music.”
She also put her own stamp on classics such as “Malaika,” sung in Swahili, and the late South African songstress Miriam Makeba’s signature song, “Pata Pata.”
Natu Camara’s natural talent capped off an evening of international delights for the sold-out crowd, who finally headed out into the early spring warmth looking forward to next year’s offerings.
“In Africa, we learn to do it all ourselves,” Camara intoned. “There were no music schools or teachers unless you followed your parents’ footsteps and were guided by them. I am a songwriter, singer, performer, and being able to present my art to the world is a gift from heaven, and I feel blessed.”
Although Camara has no immediate plans to be in D.C. performing, she will hold her album release party in New York City on April 26 at S.O.B’s.
L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) represents one of the biggest linguistic zones in the world. The International Organization of la Francophonie was created in 1970 “with the mission to embody the active solidarity between its 80 member states and governments which together represent over one-third of the United Nation’s member states and account for a population of over 890 million people, including 220 million French speakers.”
For more information on the Francophonie Festival and to sign up for an emailed newsletter, go to www.francophonie-dc.org.