Afropop superstar Fatoumata Diawara extends her reach on Fenfo

Malian musician performing at Kay Meek Arts Centre on March 20

Fatoumata Diawara, Kay Meek Arts Centre (1700 Mathers Ave, West Vancouver), Wednesday, March 20, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $45/$42/$29 visit

Fatoumata Diawara has built a modern global career from her traditional West African roots.

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Last month the Afropop superstar performed live on the Grammy Awards telecast. Nominated for two awards (Best World Music Album for Fenfo, and Best Dance Recording for her vocals on the Disclosure track  “Ultimatum”) she brought out an electric Gibson and played an extended guitar solo during the performance of her song “Negue, Negue,” with the big Grammy house band.

“I am trying to create my own world,” she says over the phone. After the Grammy’s Diawara toured Australia and is taking a short break at home this week before she starts a North American stint.

“In Africa you do not often see a woman playing an electric guitar. I’ve been trying to keep traditions but at the same time be open to the world and I wanted something new. It’s very important to find one more freedom, you know.

“I didn’t take normal guitar lessons. I play with my heart. It’s kind of my blues. I use a modern instrument, instead of the kamele ngoni or the kora, but I’m transposing all those sounds to my Gibson guitar.”

Diawara stands out in any crowd. Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau calls her the ‘subtlest of desert divas.’

“I was excited to be (at the Grammys),” she says. “I’m a fighter, I like to challenge myself. The harder it is the more I want to try it. I’m like a child. Keep your childhood spirit. Life is love.”

Born in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1982, Diawara’s parents sent her to live with an aunt in Bamako, Mali, when she was 11.  Her aunt was an actress and she herself began to act at a young age, initially in films with directors Adama Drabo and Cheick Oumar Sissoko.

Interspersed with acting in films, Diawara also appeared on stage, including Sophocles’ Antigone at Le théâtre des Bouffes-du-Nord in Paris, under the direction of Peter Brook.

Burkina Faso-based filmmaker Dani Kouyaté made Diawara a household name in Mali at the age of 19 when she starred in the lead role of his popular film Sia, le rêve du python (2001). After the film was released, and for many years afterwards, everybody in Bamako knew her simply as “Sia.”

Since then, Diawara has established her own name internationally with two solo albums, many collaborations in both film and music, as well as working as a political activist and ambassador focusing on improving conditions in her West African homeland.

In 2009, she toured as a backup singer/dancer with Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangaré which gave her a firsthand taste of what life is like on the road. Over the past decade Diawara has crisscrossed the world several times performing her music, which like her mentor Sangaré, is a modern Afropop rooted in Wassoulou cultural traditions from south of Bamako.

A keen collaborator, her first album, Fatou, which made many top-10 lists in 2011, features musicians, such as Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, master kora musician Toumani Diabaté and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, jamming together on her tunes. The debut album includes a tribute to Sangaré, “Makoun Oumou.”

In tandem with her music, Diawara has continued working in cinema, including Abderrahmane Sissako’s Academy Award-nominated masterwork, Timbuktu (Le chagrin des oiseaux) in 2014, and Lutz Gregor’s 2016 documentary, Mali Blues, about a rich musical culture under threat from conservative Islamists.

Both films addressed the negative social changes experienced as Islamist militant groups moved into the northern regions of Mali and imposed strict fundamentalist Sharia law. In the film Timbuktu, many things are forbidden and the Jihadists sentence Diawara’s character, Fatou ‘La Chanteuse,’ to 40 lashes for singing, and 40 lashes for being in the same room as a man who is not a member of her family.

“In Mali today the social conditions are very bad,” she says. “It’s very strange and we don’t know where we are going. There is no security. We didn’t have that fear before. Everybody has guns. The situation is becoming very serious.”

Although Diawara is now based in Europe and spends much of the year on tour she goes back to her childhood home every chance she gets. It gives her an opportunity to catch up with her family, relax and recharge.

“I wouldn’t invite good friends to go to Bamako and that is something new,” she says. “(Problems with fundamentalists started in the north) and now the insecurity is coming south. It’s getting larger. It’s getting worse day-by-day.”

Diawara’s latest album, Fenfo (Something to Say), released in 2018, extends her reach into both modern Afropop and traditional themes using a battery of string instruments including kora, ngoni, electric guitar and cello. The latter instrument is played by French cellist Vincent Ségal who has previously explored the relationships between Western classical and West African string influences with kora player Ballaké Sissoko on the 2009 duet album Chamber Music.

Fenfo in the Bambara language means “something to say.” For Diawara, the album continues the push forward into new territory.

“It was quite free, I could do my own thing on Fenfo,” she says. “I had one year to compose the songs. It was very relaxed. You can feel that. Between the first album and the second one I collaborated with many great artists and I could feel the difference. I had control and I knew what I wanted.”

A prolific composer and an inveterate traveller Diawara writes mainly on the road.

“Sometimes I’m feeling lonely and I’m missing my son, then I compose,” she says. “It’s like music balances me. I write, because I want to feel good. I sing, because I want to feel good. I’m always composing, I have a lot of songs. I can connect with the spirit anywhere, anyplace. It could be on the train, it could be on the plane. In all my collaborations I go for different sounds because I want to listen to my heart and I will give you what I feel, right now.”


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