Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara, a resident of France since the late 1990s, has gained considerable momentum in world music circles over the past two years. She released her debut recording, an EP, Kanou, in Europe in May 2011, and followed that in September with Fatou, which won the prestigious 2012 Songlines Music Award for Newcomer of the Year.
Fatou was greeted with universal acclaim; the Telegraph says “this stylish debut doesn’t put a foot wrong,” the Times of London says “the air of wistful, understated beauty draws you in, and Mojo calls her a “spell-weaving new voice.” The album, which held the top spot on European world music charts for six months, was released in the U.S. last month by Nonesuch.
Born in 1982 in the Ivory Coast to Malian parents, Diawara joined her father’s dance troupe as a child and soon achieved local fame for her prowess in the didadi, an energetic dance from the Wassoulou region in southwestern Mali. She left her family at age 12 to move to Bamako to live with an aunt, an actress. This led to an acting career for the young girl; as an actress, Diawara has toured the world with the French theater company Royale de Luxe and appeared in such films as Taafe Fangan, La Genèse and Sia: The Dream of the Python.
During her travels with Royale de Luxe, Diawara began singing for her own enjoyment. She was overheard by the company’s director, who encouraged Diawara to begin singing in the ensemble’s shows. Encouraged by the audience reaction, she started singing in Paris clubs when she wasn’t touring. She also started playing guitar and writing songs. Diawara met the famous Malian musician Cheikh Tidiane Seck at one of these Paris shows, and he hired the young singer to provide backing vocals on albums he was producing back in Mali by Dee Dee Bridgewater (the Grammy-winning Red Earth: A Malian Journey) and Oumou Sangare.
In addition to her work with Sangare and Bridgewater, Diawara has recorded with Damon Albarn, Herbie Hancock, AfroCubism, Bobby Womack and the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. She has toured with her own band, with Sangare and Bridgewater and with Damon Albarn in both his Africa Express project and the band Rocket Juice and the Moon with Tony Allen and Flea.
Diawara’s music blends funk, rock and world music touches with Wassoulou traditions, and like many Wassoulou women artists, Diawara writes and sings songs that forcefully advocate for women’s rights, an issue of fundamental importance for the young singer. And for an actress trained in a collaborative, scripted medium, writing and singing her own songs—and playing the guitar, too—represents the ultimate freedom. “To me it was a wonderful and daring thing,” Diawara says, of her decision to follow her musical instincts, “a Malian girl with an acoustic guitar. Why should the guitar be only for men?”
Fatoumata Diawara will be begin her U.S. tour at the University of Dayton on Thursday, September 20. The concert, sponsored by Cityfolk and the University of Dayton Arts Series, will take place at the Kennedy Union Boll Theatre at 8 pm. Tickets are $20; $18 for seniors, military, UD faculty and staff; and $10 for students. For tickets, visit Cityfolk.org or call 937-496-3863.
(thanks to UD senior Lauren Glass for input on this article)