A powerful voice from Mali, Fatoumata Diawara

Malian singer, songwriter, guitarist, actress and activist Fatoumata Diawara performs Sunday at Freight & Salvage. Photo: Courtesy artist

When Fatoumata Diawara sings about surviving dire circumstances, she’s not playing a role.

Born to Malian parents in the Ivory Coast, raised southern Mali and long based in Paris, she’s a captivating singer/songwriter, guitarist, actor and activist who bridges worlds. As one of five surviving children from 11 siblings, she carved out a singular creative path in the face ardent opposition from her family, emerging as one of West Africa’s most eloquent female artists.

Diawara performs Sunday at Freight & Salvage, celebrating the release of her second album Fenfo (Shanachie), a striking project that unfolds with the emotional arc of a cathartic conversation. Though not designed as a song cycle, Diawara moves from dismayed child to reassuring parent, singing mostly in Wassoulou (the CD provides English translation of her lyrics).

“My first album was more concentrated on my own experience as a child, everything that I didn’t understand” says Diawara, speaking about her critically hailed 2011 debut Fatou (World Circuit). “It was questions: Why do you do that? Why are we not free? Why you want me to be like you? This is my first album as a mom and I want to be a voice for children. Why didn’t you tell me the world is so crazy, that people can be mean sometimes? Why people are fighting? We have enough to live in this world. We should enjoy our differences.”


Diawara first gained notice on screen. Living in Mali’s capital Bamako as a teenager, she accompanied her aunt, an actress, to the set of a film she was in, tasked with taking care of her baby. The Malian filmmaker and playwright Adama Drabo spotted her and cast her in a small role in 1997’s Taafé Fanga (Skirt Power), a farce based on a Dogon myth about a woman who finds a magical mask and uses its powers to reverse gender roles in her village. Bit by the acting bug, Diawara defied her family and moved to France, and started making a name for herself in productions like Cheick Oumar Sissoko’s 1999 all-black retelling of the first book of the Bible, La Genèse (Genesis), Dani Kouyaté’s popular 2002 film Sia, le rêve du python, and more recently Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar-nominated 2014 film Timbuktu, which is set in the historic north Malian city during the occupation by the radical Islamic group Ansar Dine.

“I have a movie coming next year in January, Toucouleur, with a very big actor from France, Omar Sy,” Diawara says. “I play a love story for my first time. I normally always play protest things. I’m happy to do that, to be a very soft woman. It’s not a major role. I’ve been doing one movie per year, because I’m very busy with my music. I love acting.”

Diawara’s Freight show is one of only three North American dates on this run, and she’s touring with a band of New Orleans musicians assembled by guitarist Sam Dickey, who grew up in Davis. Trained in jazz and steeped in West African music, Dickey spent seven months in Mali living and studying with kora master Toumani Diabaté. He toured with her in the spring, and was drawn to her “unique story, that fact that she made a tough decision, running away at 18 or 19,” Dickey says. “The fact that she’s spent her adult life in Europe shapes her music. She’s very much about exploring her own heritage, but she brings this pan-African social consciousness in her music. She’s got a unique blend of roots with Western pop and rock.”

Or as Diawara describes her sensibility as a songwriter, bandleader and guitarist, she’s got “one foot in traditional music and one foot in contemporary music. With these musicians I can find the middle. With the blues you can do everything. Mali is very lucky for that, our blues can be adapted to many types of music.”

When it came to finding her voice as a singer, Diawara says that discovering the music of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday played an essential role. “When I heard Nina for the first time I was very shocked,” she says. “I didn’t speak English then, so I couldn’t understand, but her soul was so powerful, and that low voice. I wanted to sing low but I was suffering to sing high all the time. This is what I should do, be myself. A voice should not be just about performing. You sing to heal people, and I love those women, healing themselves. This is what I’d like to do.”

If Simone and Lady Day provided models for Diawara via their recordings, the great Malian singer Oumou Sangaré took her under her wing. But when they first met, Sangaré was a fan of Diawara’s work in the film Sia, le rêve du python and had no idea that she was also a musician. During a trip to Bamako, she got a call from pianist/producer Cheick Tidiane Seck, who was working with Sangaré in the studio and said that the vocalist wanted to meet Diawara.

“He said Oumou is a big fan and I said I’m a big fan of hers too,” Diawara says. “I went by the studio. She didn’t know that I was singing and she invited me to do a couple of tracks and I did backing vocals for her on Seya. She said, no way, I want this girl on tour with me. Why not? I was starting to be on stage. I’ve been learning everything for myself. Always doing things by myself. I figured going on stage with her will be a huge school. I spent nine months on tour with Oumou, which is how I met Herbie Hancock and got involved in the Half the Sky project.”


Holding up the heavens, speaking out for African women, providing succor for those in dire straits, Fatoumata Diawara is an extraordinary artist for troubling times.

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