Fatoumata Diawara's work in the film Sia, le rêve du python made the Ivory Coast native a star in Mali at a young age of 18 years. A few years forward came music, built around the traditional melodies of her homeland
SUNG IN her native language Bambara, the words of Fatoumata Diawara’s songs bore a mystery to most of the audiences in the concert. The medium was foreign, not the sentiment behind those lyrics. Not surprisingly, it struck a chord far beyond those gathered at the Blue Frog club in the national capital as part of Blackberry Sharp Nights recently.
On the surface, the claim might seem absurd, considering the Malian singer is just 37 years old. But she has fit a considerable amount of living into those years through a career that ranges from acting to singing to writing her own songs and also activism.
Her work in the 2001 film Sia, le rêve du python (Sia, The Dream of the Python) made the Ivory Coast native a star in Mali at a young age of 18 years. A few years forward came music, built around the traditional melodies of her homeland, which came to serve as a voice for the rights of women and children at a time when much of northern Mali fell into war.
“I became very popular in my country through the cinema before I started to write songs,” said Diawara, as she shook her head slightly, making the shells at the end of her dreadlocks jingle. “Sia… became one of the most famous, most popular movies in my country. That you can touch several generations and have them still know the story is so good. The only thing is I feel like I’ve never been a child in my life.”
The French-speaking artiste sees herself as an ambassador, a role she has relished since fleeing her native country for France several years ago.
From there, she joined the handful of African singers known outside their continent. “We have only Angélique [Kidjo], Oumou [Sangaré], Miriam [Makeba]. That’s because in Africa, we have many women who sing but it’s very difficult to be a singer – to have musicians to support you, and respect you, and to have your husband support you; to have your freedom. Women need to be emancipated.”
She added, “In Mali, my generation looks at me, at every action I do. I’m like a little example for them, for women. When I’m in Bamako, many girls come to me and say they’re very happy for everything I’m doing. I can tell them what I want through my music.”
And she does it too with songs like Boloko, that denounces female genital mutilation. Or Sowa, her paean to children who grow up not knowing their parents, which was born of her own experience as was banished at the age of 12 years and sent to live with an aunt as she refused to go to school. She didn’t get to see her parents again until she was 26 years.
In her 2011 album Fatou, which was released in North America in 2012, on World Circuit / Nonesuch Records, she sings about being branded a witch and a whore as she calls for justice through tolerance for the families and orphans of Mali in a song Alama.
Diawara grew up listening to Wassoulou music, an antecedent of American Blues. “If you are a woman in Mali, you don’t sing on stage. To me, taking up the guitar was a wonderful and daring thing. Why should the guitar be only for men?” said Diawara, in her broken English, while she reminisced her childhood in Cote d’Ivoire.
It was almost 10 years ago that desert blues invaded the western stage and markets, finding ample appreciation from critics and masses alike.
And Diawara was at the helm of things. But what caught attention was her song Mali-ke (Peace for Mali) in which she collaborated with 13 Malian artistes during the ban on music in her country by Islamic groups. “It’s a place like India, where music is ingrained in our soul. No one had the right to deny us that,” said Diawara.