With her assemblage of talents, former actress turned multiple Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter FATOUMATA DIAWARA exhibits her immense passion for all things unifying and harmonious, not only through her epochal smile, but her glorious array of ardently composed songs.
After the release of her 2011 debut album Fatou, the Malian artist was to be the most talked about new African artist on the planet, sparking the flame for the wildfire of collaborations that were to follow. Through Diawara’s concern for the progression of minorities, this led to the involvement of such projects as the formation of a West African supergroup that recorded a song pressing for peace in her distressed homeland, as well as joining the line-up for the UK-based non-profit organisation Africa Express, resulting in her sharing the stage with Sir Paul McCartney.
Compiling the complexities of raw human emotion, Diawara’s most recent album, Fenfo, is sure to be showered with praise during her imminent UK tour. Ahead of a date in Liverpool on 6th February, Anouska Liat picked up the phone to the Malian figurehead for a chat with what felt like an old, trusted friend.
You moved to France when you were 19, saying that you wanted to explore your freedom and pursue acting. Was it youthful curiosity, a strong sense of confidence in yourself, or a combination of both that encouraged you?
It was a personal decision and a necessity for me to leave at that time. Now, through my own experiences, I’m trying to convince the new generation to be survivors and fight for their own stories. Sometimes your parents want to decide for you, society does too sometimes. It’s good for humans to do what they want; life is very strange and fast.
You’ve previously stated in an interview that making your music is easy as it’s in your blood; it’s your ancestry, tradition and culture. Do you therefore believe that taking inspiration from your heritage is imperative to your success?
For sure. In Mali, we have a lot of music but we are all based in the blues. I always combine traditional and modern music – I don’t just make music for the Malian people, it’s also for my international audiences. You will always hear some rock ’n’ roll, on stage especially. The blues naturally comes from the desert, and I also incorporate folk music.
With music being in your blood, does this mean that you feel you have that constant creative flow, or is it something you have to forcibly summon?
I focus my mind on traditional music, the roots. Behind everything I’m doing, my truth is what’s most important. I want my audience to hear my sincerity and honesty. The audience should feel comfortable no matter where they come from or what language they speak; you have to let them feel like you are one. When I am myself, this is shown in my traditional music, the one I have in my blood and ancestry.
You’re back in the UK soon with your tour, the first gig being in London. How do you find performing to non-native speakers? Do you think it provides more room for connection with the music itself?
It’s like bringing my spirit to them, and I focus on the love that we will be sharing that night; I’m just excited to be in front of them. I always hope my shows are sold-out because we cannot dance or jump or scream, we cannot have fun unless we’re all together, and that is what life is about. Music is a universal language, and playing in front of a Malian or English audience makes no difference because it’s all about love, melodies, groove, funk, blues, rock. We’re gonna just rock it.
Your songs are obviously of great importance, aiding the notion of encouragement for many movements and beliefs, with one of your songs denouncing trafficking and modern slavery. Other songs also have the recurring theme of a need for equality, is this something you find very easy to talk about?
Yes, I normally have a message behind my songs. I have been fighting a lot in my life as a child of this planet, and I would like to keep fighting for people. That’s why I broach subjects like female genital mutilation or arranged marriage, because I would like to save the next generation, which means all our children. That’s why my subjects are always something heavy, however I try to find simple melodies to keep my audience from getting frustrated when they listen – I want them to be happy. But I will always send a little message just to say ‘OK, there is something happening there, what could we do to change this?’.
When talking about the new album artwork, you were said to look like you were “representing a nation”. How does it feel to be in such a position of visibility and do you ever sense any pressure?
Not really, I appreciate it a lot. I’m like a child inside; many big artists have always told me ‘don’t lose your child soul’. I like to dance, sing and have fun with people – I’m like a baby! I can’t see any colours or preconceptions of how to live life. For me, we are all one and the same and we should enjoy life today. My job is to make people happy and it’s a kind of healing I enjoy giving my audience. After my show I want people to feel good and think, ‘Wow, I feel happy now’.
The fourth track on your latest album, Kanou Dan Yen, is about a couple who love each other but cannot be together due to their family’s beliefs on ethnicity. What would you tell those who may be unfortunate enough to still find themselves in that position?
We have this problem in our country still, but now I realise, through travelling, it’s a global issue. When you’re poor you cannot be married to a rich guy, and when you’re from a particular religion you cannot marry a different religion. I took a story from my friend in Mali who was suffering with something like this, so through this experience I can reach other people in the world who are dealing with discrimination. Love must be free, love is love, and doesn’t have a colour or nationality – nor does music. Love is unity, and should be normal and accessible to everybody.
You call music your family and say that it gives you hope. Do you therefore think music has a higher purpose than just its sonic form?
Music is still like my father, my mother and best friend. I spend more time around the world than I do with my family, so it’s my spirit and it keeps me surviving. Music is much more than just something to listen to, it represents who I am, and people can see more of my soul when I’m singing. I’m kind of a depressed person; I go down with my brain when I’m not on stage. Music is my hospital, my medicine.
Fenfo translates as ‘something to say’ in English. Is there something you’d like to say to the readers of Bido Lito! that might encourage them moving forward with the new year?
Yes. I’d like to encourage people to talk, to encourage women to speak out and to express and defend themselves. I don’t have time to go to the doctors to talk about my own experiences, but through music I speak to my audience and they listen. It feels like I’m healing myself. All the subjects on Fenfo I should probably go to the psychologist and talk about. Instead, I just go to my studio and make an album to share my feelings and opinions, as I’ve done for my whole life.
Fatoumata Diawara plays Leaf on Thursday 6th February. Fenfo is out now.