Fatoumata Diawara: Don’t Feel Sorry For Me (Part I)
Fatoumata Diawara is a multi-talented singer-songwriter, whose voice reveals a rare vulnerability, not to be mistaken for weakness. A non-conformist, she defied tradition and escaped Mali as a teenager when under pressured from her family to get married. Today, Diawara is using her music to expose the cultural prejudices faced by women across Africa and the world. Her self-tiled debut album, Fatou was released in September, to critical acclaim with critics and audiences alike. In her own words, Fatoumata Diawara and why she does not want anyone to feel sorry for her.
Fatoumata: It’s really strange because I really feel and felt music in my soul and it was my inspiration to explain many things to my father and mother. I use music as medicine for me and that started when I was with a French theatre group. When we were on tour in Mali, I always go away to be alone and sing, be with myself and relax. The director used to listen to me and then one day, he asked if he could bring into the show? He said: “I know you are an actress and can act but your voice gives me something I cannot explain to you and I would like to use it in my show and I accepted.” During the tour, people would come back to me and say “we came to see the show again, it is our fifth and sixth time and we keep coming back only for your role because when you come on stage, your voice, that whole moment gives us something good and relaxing.” One person, two people, seven people and then loads of people kept telling me. That was when I thought, there is something here, which I think I have to share. If I want to sing and write songs, I know my story, I know what my life in Mali was like as a woman. To be a woman in Mali, in my village and in our tradition, it is a different language. To be free and independent, you have to make a decision and decide what you want to do. I decided I wanted to do everything differently to what tradition says. Everything started because I decided I wanted to change something and from that I started writing songs about women, kids, my life, my way and my experience of life.
Belinda: You are described as a ‘fresh talent who pens her own songs and has a tumultuous life story behind her,’ which by the way reads like a book: from your refusal to go to school and being sent away to live with your aunt, getting cast in film and then being forced to announce live on TV that you are abandoning your acting career due to the pressure from your family to get married, and then running away to Paris. That is one heck of a journey. Can you elaborate on that period of your life for those of us just getting to know you and the impact it has had on you and the ways it shaped you as a woman and as an artist?
Fatoumata: It is a really strange life but I don’t know why I am so different to my mother who never decided on anything or to my cousins or my aunts and other family members. I think being in theatre, going on stage and music helped me to make a decision and take the big risk to go to them and say, no, I want to decide for myself, not you. It is a big decision to go against the tradition that you know. I’m so young but what I want and wanted a change, as a woman. I think the opportunity to be in theatre and go on tour at the age of 14 and tour Europe with Peter Brooke, gave me a chance to meet different people and listen and hear a different discourse, and meet different women with different hair styles and clothes. That helped me a lot. I believe in my decision and what decided and I’m learning. I’m changing what my tradition decides for women because it’s good for women and it’s good but the future, what’s in the future?
Belinda: With a story like that, what inspires you as an individual, an artist and shapes your life and musical journey?
Fatoumata: My life’s journey has brought me to this moment…to do music. My voice is for me to express and expose myself, and share who I’m and my experiences because I’m not alone in this kind of life. There are a lot of women, who have the same issues – want to know there is one lady, who is empowered and she can speak about these things. She is free to explain and ask why we accept it? So my voice is the only weapon I have to speak out. If I wrote books, that would be too much. I tried to write books but I always cried. When I sing, my life is not sad. I’m lucky and cannot say it is sad. When I ask myself what can help me to be free and happy which I do a lot, I felt music was the best way to write about my life, share with as many people as possible though the songs I sing. I cannot sing other people’s songs or experience.
Fatoumata Diawara: The root of this voice is from my village, WASSALOU. When I write and sing, I add a modern twist and when I listen to the likes of Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Nina Simone, I bring these influences to my music, that’s why it is very strange. I love Jazz music, Ladies and Blues like Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday and many other female artists. I can feel something in their voices, something familiar in these women voices. Voice is the only instrument with which you cannot lie. You always have to be true. Through the voice, you can meet the soul of somebody. I love these voices because they are different songs and familiar with them and I find myself being sensitive to their voices and life. It’s like they are familiar though I don’t know them but I hear their voices and I feel something really strong. Their voices tell you their stories, for example, Nina Simone, she is incredible. When I listen to her, I want to cry. There are also women from Mali like Oumou Sangare, who is also from Wassalou. She has been a role model and good example for me because she is the first woman in my village to go stand on the global stage and share her voice with the world.
Belinda: Now, you were born in Cote d’ Ivoire, raised in Mali and currently based in Paris, how have your journey throw different countries and spheres of life influenced your music and continue to influence you as an artist?
Fatoumata: It’s really rich for me to be able to travel. I have one of my songs about people that cannot travel. They call them clandestine. For me, it’s not clandestine because when I look at my life, I started going around the world at the age of 15. So when I write songs and sing them, I fuse that in also. I can’t say only my Malian influence is good. I have to bring the various influences into my music. InParis, I can go to the rock scene, pop and blues, so why not use all these influences? When I come toLondon, I can go to the Barbican, listen to different music like Afrobeat, which is different to my Wassoulou song but I bring these various influences. My music is not only Wassulou music. If you listen closely, you can hear different influences, it is subtle.
Belinda: There are strong tracks on this album, from Bissa, which deals with the issue of marriage to Sowa, the challenge of sending one’s children away to be raised by others and of course, Bolocco, which touches on the ever controversial issue of FGM. When you are writing these songs and singing them either in your private space or in public, what do you want to examine, explore and expose through your music?
Fatoumata: Really good question because in Mali and not just Mali, in Africa, it is difficult to explain what you feel about society and many other issues like FGM, marriage and arranged marriages. Living in Paris, when I decided to sing…for me it was a total change to what Mali was. When I sing to people and they like it and if I can use that as an opportunity to talk about subjects that are sensitive, I use it but it took time…because there are many ladies inMali, who tried to change things and they had big problems. Female circumcision…it is impossible. No one talks about it in Mali. If I want to change something, I have to do it differently to the way the last ladies who tried and didn’t manage to change anything. Some have died trying to bring change. At some point I thought to myself if you have to sing these kinds of subjects, keep your smile, try to find sweet melody and try to touch people differently not like war. Try another approach. We never have to give up. We have to continue because only women can change things. If many women have given up, I don’t have to give up because I don’t live in Mali. I can take power in my work and in a different place and decide to try again and so decided to find a sweet melody to do so. On stage it is different to the album and it is happier time being on stage. When I sing Bolocco, I try to sing a sweet melody especially when it is a difficult subject…the melody has to be sweet. And it is already working because my family, everybody wants me to come back home to Mali. My generation is really touched by my music, melodies and my approach to the subjects and the feeling and the new things I bring to the subjects.
Belinda: I understand you draw from aspects of ‘Jazz and funk, creating an exquisite contemporary folk sound and adding your ancestral influences from your Wassoulou tradition through an instinctive pop sensibility. Now, that’s one intriguing combination of sounds, how would you describe your own sound and the music you create despite the different tags that critics and others have out on it?
Fatoumata: My style of music is Wassoulu from my village. My music is not jazz, blues or Afrobeat. It is from Wasssoulou. When I write the songs, my mind is open to the world and it travels to the different places of the world I have been to as I write my music, from Chile to Vietnam to Latin America. Places I go to for two to three months and I have seen the situation of women in these places. So when I talk about women, it’s not only about women in my country. When I write my songs, it’s like I want to talk to every lady in the world. My mind is different when I write…that’s why you can hear different influences in my music but the root is Wassoulou music but you can feel a little pop music, jazz, Afrobeat and other influences.
Belinda: Due to the subjects you take on, is your music one of protestation and activism on behalf of the women and issues you write about?
Fatoumata: I would like to change things but not do just that. The first thing I want to do is give love. When I go on stage and sing Bolocco, I’m already excited. So I can’t cry on stage. I like when I go on stage but I’m not going to say you have to change and only protest. It is also because I’m a woman and women have a very different sensibility to men on stage. Everybody can do the same and protest but I’m trying to be like a mother and for that…I have to find a sweet way and a lot of love, so that when I talk to my audience, it is like a mother or like a president or a militant. My first aim is to share love because with love we can change a lot of things.
Image: Youri Lenquette
Watch out for part II.