Being nominated one of the most listened-to people (in a broad sense) of an entire continent when you are just 31 is no easy thing. Succeeding in it when you are a pop singer with just one album released is even harder, but Fatoumata Diawara did it. Indeed, if she was included in the New African’s ‘100 most influential Africans’ list, it was not only because of the undeniable musical quality of her debut record, Fatou (dating back to 2011). Nevertheless, its 12 songs were fundamental in giving new fame to this Malian (though born in the Ivory Coast in 1982) national, who already had a quite interesting life in the artistic milieu before that.
It all began, by chance, as so often happens: in her childhood, Fatoumata was a ‘turbulent child’, as she herself recognized, especially after the death of an elder sister. Dancing the traditional dance, known as Didadi, became a way to externalize her feelings, but this worried her father, who was then the mayor of Abobo, an urban district in the north of Abidjan. So, the 9 year-old girl was sent across the border, to live with an aunt of hers in Mali. However, the woman happened to be an actress and once brought her niece with her on a set; this earned Fatoumata a part in a film, and more was to follow: TV and cinema appearances, advertising, theatre in Paris … And this, in turn, was just an anticipation of her promising music career, which began onstage.
Despite the fact that most of her incomprehension with her family was due to her parents’ traditional mentality, Diawara’s music draws most of its key features from the Wassoulou culture she was raised in. Her singing style recalls that of those female Bambara singers of the southwest known as konow, which means ‘songbird’. Even though she is able to sing in three languages, Diawara thinks that only Bambara conveys her true feelings: ‘In the theatre I sing in French but I’m not fully myself when I do so, and I like to bare my soul to my audience’, she told the British newspaper The Observer. In another interview, resting on her experiences during tours in countries such as South Korea or Chile, she added: ‘I don’t need to sing in English or French, people can understand, people can hear from my heart and my soul, where my voice is’.
A strong link with a culture does not bar one from innovating, and this is also Diawara’s case. She has been able to escape the most common stereotypes associated with Afropop and world music, but at the same time she puts a very personal touch into all her songs and performances. She once described this style as an attempt to make African music ‘more accessible’ even if ‘it’s hard, because our languages and culture are so strong’. This, she went on, does not mean that ‘we [Africans] have to abandon our roots, but we can present our culture in a new way’.
That is precisely what she managed to do in Fatou, whose graceful ballads include elements of jazz, pop and funk along with those of the Wassoulou tradition: in this connection, a noteworthy element is that she renounced including the iconic kamalen n’goni (young man’s harp) in her touring band, using it infrequently also in her album. She prefers the guitar, which she learned to play in Paris, when a musician she was expected to perform with could not make the date and she, in turn, refused to cancel the concert. Her attitude to the mixing of genres is also shown by the vast range of artists she has worked with: they include Damon Albarn, Cheikh Lo, Herbie Hancock, Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea, and Tony Allen, once Fela Kuti’s drummer.
A part of the Wassoulou tradition that Diawara is very attached to, is that of the so called ‘songs of advice’, through which women singers try to educate other girls. This becomes evident in the choice of themes: from this point of view, she follows the footsteps of artists such as Oumou Sangare (the first-ever Wassoulou international music star, whom Fatoumata once referred to as her ‘mum’), the late Coumba Sidibe and Tata Bambo Kouyate: all of them, for instance, dedicated songs to the theme of womens’ rights, as Diawara did in Bissa (about the problems women experience in marriage) and Boloko (confronting the issue of female genital mutilation)
Such a commitment earned her the definition of ‘vocalist-activist’, and this reputation was strengthened by her decision – during the war in Mali – to gather some of the most well-known artists of the country in order to record a song, Mali-ko, asking for peace and unity. Some called her a ‘diplomat-artist’ for this initiative, and, whether she accepts this title or not, it is a good example of the reasons that pushed The New African to put her in its most influential people list, in the same lot with politicians, academics, religious leaders and economists.