Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara sings for the voiceless
Ahead of her performance at Louvre Abu Dhabi, she talks to us about the personal costs of her artistic journey and her aim to empower through her music
Malian blues chanteuse Fatoumata Diawara’s peppy songs conceal a wisdom forged by a painful journey of self-discovery. Each performance, she explains, provides a sense of healing. The smiles and applause from the crowd serve as a reminder that the creative fire within is a force for good – even if it came at the cost of her relationship with her family.
“I almost feel like a baby on stage. I am just so happy, and I just want to give back and make everyone feel the same joy that I have,” she says. “The stage is a safe place for me. I feel peace there and this is why I always need to be on tour. I get sad when I am away for too long because I feel like I am not contributing.”
Diawara’s seemingly never- ending run of shows will have her headlining one of the nights of the four-day cultural festival marking the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
The 34-year-old will make her regional debut on Sunday in the museum’s sparkling plaza with her brand of driving songs composed in the Malian roots tradition called wassoulou. Performed mostly by women, the genre is credited by music ethnologists as forming the DNA of the blues.
While Diawara’s acclaimed 2011 debut album, Fatou, has her jettisoning the genre’s signature traditional instruments including the soku (a traditional fiddle), djembe drum, and Kamalen n’goni (a six-stringed harp), for a modern set-up of electric and bass guitars and drums, she still manages to conjure that signature rumbling groove evoking a desert landscape both hospitable and unforgiving.
The album’s lyrics, however, are trademark wassoulou in which she expresses the various factors of the Malian female experience. Sung in her native bambara language, the songs speak of the challenges of childbearing, the joys and pains of motherhood and the horror of female circumcision in a manner that is both straightforward and plaintive.
Speaking from her home in Italy, Diawara is cuddling her two-year-old son while on the phone. She states her work gained even more resonance once she became a mother.
“It made more sensitive. I cry a lot more now as I feel I can sense people’s suffering,” she says. “It’s no longer about just singing songs now. You want to share a piece of yourself with people. When I am able to express myself, I feel I can encourage others to also do the same.”
Diawara knows how important that is. That value was the battle line drawn between herself and her conservative parents. Born in the Ivory Coast, her sheer exuberance as a child steadily unnerved her elders.
Diawara’s love for dance and song, coupled with her stubbornness and strong will, forced them to banish the singer as a 13-year-old to the Malian capital of Bamako, where Diawara lived with her aunt.
It would be 12 years before they would see her again. The time in between saw Diawara immerse herself as a child actress in Mali’s nascent film community; her debut appearance as a 15- year-old in the final scene of the drama Taafé Fanga (The Power of Women) led her to being cast as one of the leads in 1999’s poetic art-house film La Genese (Genesis) alongside Malian music stalwart Salif Keita.
However, it was her role in the 2001 Pan-African production Sia, The Dream of the Python where the industry took notice – and perhaps also folks back in Ivory Coast.
The tale mirrored Diawara’s real life circumstances, as she played a young woman who runs away after defying the kingdom’s rigid traditions – Diawara had escaped overnight to Paris as a 20-year-old after learning she was set to forcibly wed a cousin.
It was in the French capital, she explains, where she felt she was finally calling her own tune. “It was different because I didn’t know what freedom meant – to be free to do what you want and to discuss any topic. I realised that I was not a little slave,” the singer says.
“But in a way, there is some sadness because I felt that I found this freedom a bit late in my life. That pushed me to work hard and be fast on my feet. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do when it came to living.” And she did that by joining a street theatre company.
In her time with the acclaimed troupe, Royal de Luxe, she toured throughout Europe in addition to more exotic locales such as Vietnam and Mexico. During the quiet moments between rehearsals and show time, Diawara would sing to herself wassoulou standards. Struck by that husky and agile voice, the troupe encouraged her to perform solo as an accompaniment to the show. The buzz resulted in Diawara Parisian club shows before entering the studio to work on Fatou.
The album’s deft mix of traditional and western influences come from the legion of luminaries who joined her in the studio. Mousso boasts a flourishing polyrhythmic drum patterns by Afro-beat pioneer Tony Allen, while the assertive bass lines arriving in the middle of the track Sonkolon belongs to none other than Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.
“It was really interesting because working with these British and American musicians is different to working with French artists,” Diawara explains.
“With French artists, you are dealing with a different and artistic way of thinking, because France has its own big musical culture. With Americans and English people, it is just very quick. They really feel the music, and there is a quicker understanding, and that is because they are more familiar with blues music, which is where rock and other guitar music comes from.”
While the album has been embraced by western audiences, almost all of Diawara’s songs address the women back home in Mali. And none is more heart rending and important than the unflinching closer Boloko.
A stirring argument against female circumcision, which Diawara experienced herself when she reached puberty, her straight forward lyrics council mothers against the practice for the sake of their daughter’s physical and emotional well-being: “They cut the flower that made me a woman/ Don’t cut the flower that makes me a woman/ If you circumcise girls You will make their intimate moments difficult/ They will always have health problems.”
“This song is very important to me, she says. “All I want to do today with my music, is to help protect the next generation.
“Like many women, I have also been cut, so for my generation it is too late. But I don’t want this for my daughter or anyone’s daughter. I feel like I am the voice for them. Only by speaking out can we change things.”
Part of that mission finds Diawara returning to Bamako regularly for public talks and artistic workshops. The treks also provided opportunities for Diawara to mend the broken relationship with her family. “I am still angry. At the same time, I forgive them. Does that make sense?” she says. “That means, yes, I forgive them, but I would not change anything about who I am.
“I will still fight and show that what my parents did to me and what people do to their daughters is not good. To do this, you need some kind of energy – maybe it is the anger – but it is something that makes me fight and say exactly what I need to say.”
Fatoumata Diawara will performin the plaza of Louvre Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Shows starts at 9pm. Tickets are from Dh200 from www.louvreabudhabi.ae
Mandela Trilogy: The role of music in the anti-apartheid movement
Updated: November 9, 2017 10:32 AM