Fatoumata Diawara: Don’t Feel Sorry For Me (Part II)
In the final part of my interview with Fatoumata Diawara, the multi-talented singer-songwriter, whose voice reveals a rare vulnerability that should not be mistaken for weakness, talks about her influences, identity and what she wants people to take from her music. A non-conformist, Diawara defied tradition and escaped Mali as a teenager when under pressured from her family to get married. Today, she 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.
Belinda: Mali gave us Oumou Sangaré and Rokia Traoré, Toumani Diabete among others who are both great artists in their own right. But Oumou and Rokia are women, who have done great work and you know them. How has your friendship with them influenced your evolution as an artist and encouraged you as a woman?
Fatoumata: I know them very well. I know they are ladies who want to change things but it is not enough. I want more African ladies on stage. It is very difficult because men always want to use you for back vocals. It is difficult to step out on your own with your own project as a solo artist. When I saw Rokia Traore for the first time, she saw me on stage and she came back and told me, you are to continue because not many young Malian ladies are actresses. I have never seen that outside of Mali and this was in a small village in France, when I was about 15 and she was like, ‘you are Malian and you have decided to become an actress. It’s very difficult, you are crazy…’ and she was really excited and proud of me and that helped me a lot. Oumou also, when you meet her, you meet someone who is strong. And in Mali, we have many singers but not all can go around the world. Not all of them have their individual project; they are either support their husband or their brother. Only Rokia and Oumou have managed to go with their projects around the world. That influenced me a lot, Rokia with her guitar and Oumou for her life and we come from the same region of Mali and speak the same language. She is not my only influence – Miriam Makeba, the first time I saw her on stage, her energy gave me something very strong. I think she is the first lady in Africa, who started and the world knew her as a woman and a woman artist. I know she didn’t have an easy life but she did something and she decided with her voice what her life was going to be like.
Belinda: Rokia and Oumou tackle some of the issues that you address in your music. Isn’t it ironic that Mali produces great female musicians, which demonstrates a great cultural heritage though women are still not seen as equals in society and permission is often needed for them to do anything?
Fatoumata: It is not easy. Sometimes you want to give up but women have got to decide for themselves. Don’t wait for your husband or brother, take an instrument and try to play. I keep my independence for my music when I play the guitar. It’s been only three, fours years that I have been playing the guitar. I never went to music school to study music or learn to play the guitar. But when I began to play with different musicians in Paris, you can imagine, always guys because not many ladies play the guitar. It was very difficult and I can understand many ladies give up from that because you do everything and someone comes and says it is their project and if you refuse, he will refuse to play you and you can’t go anywhere. In Paris, you can meet many ladies and this problem is not only in Mali. The problem in the world is that we have so many men on stage and not the same number of women. In Mali, you see only Oumou amd Rokia and me and that’s not normal. In Benin, only Angelique Kidjo, why only her? Why not other women who can bring their own projects? I think women have to believe in themselves more because nobody can do it for us. It is not the men’s fault, it is for us to find something and believe it and go with it. We have to do our work and build our world. No one will do it for us.
Belinda: We talked about your childhood earlier and you have not shied away from talking about it openly. Are you concerned about any backlash or what people will say?
Fatoumata: No, I don’t care about that. I believe in what I’m saying because in order to bring different subjects to my music, I discovered something in me. This voice is not mine because when I decided to write some songs and compose, something in me changed. This is my traditional language. I normally cannot speak my traditional language. I can only speak it when I’m singing. Its like I was born in my village and it is strange and Oumou knows that, Malian people know that because they know my life. And when I sing, they are can feel something that is not commercial about my life. The subject that I use in my songs is me but what I’m saying is not in my original voice and I can only speak in this language when I sing. I can talk like the old women when I sing. People forget my age when I sing. That’s not normal for me or Malian people. For that, I don’t care. It is not about being a star or just about my life alone, as these issues are important. This voice, I have to share it.
Belinda: Are you worried about anyone feeling sorry for you because it is a hard one to combine in the media, which I see a lot of as a journalist…there is that need to continuously pin you down there?
Fatoumata: Oh no, I don’t want to be pitied. NO! No! No! That’s why on stage, I’m really crazy and I like to dance. Life is beautiful, I’m lucky. I only want to share love with people. I hope when people see me on stage they will forget my story and enjoy the moment and the music. We are talking about now not the past of Fatou. I want to share myself and give something. The past is important but the now is more interesting and everybody has a story and not every story is nice. For me love is bigger than all and when I’m on stage that is what I want to give. Only the present is important.
Belinda: The issue of identity features heavily on your akbum, what is about identity as an individual, a woman and an African that you want to tell the world through your music?
Fatoumata: It is important for me because before I had a CD, I had participated in 12 albums, including French, Cameroonian and Ivorian projects and many other duos. If I don’t have my own identity, do you think people will call me? I think that it’s important to bring these different kinds of elements to the music…I take rock and add Wassolou to it because I want to share my kind of music with other genres of music. I don’t want to do just my traditional songs. I decided to work with the guitar because it can create different kinds of sounds/music. It is a universal instrument. I want to be open with my voice even though I know it comes from my root. I would like to meet different kinds of people and share. That’s why identity is important to me because you can get lost. There are so many styles out there and if you learn them all, you may get lost.
Belinda: What would you like for your music to evoke in people?
Fatoumata: First thing, love because I don’t speak in English or French. I sing in Bambra. I can sing in English and French but I decided to sing in my language because I want to be true to myself when I sing. I want to feel something more pure and direct from my heart and soul. What I hope to evoke in people, maybe something more pure and accessible.
Belinda: Where are you most at peace, when singing in your private space, playing the guitar or when you are on stage?
Fatoumata: All of them because they are all different moments. When I sing with the guitar, it is to give myself that good feeling and love. When I play the guitar, it’s to take care of myself and it’s intimate. When I sing, it’s intimate too and it is like medicine. On stage, I give the energy from those moments of playing and signing to myself and the energy that comes from it.
Belinda: What’s the feeling that you want people to take away after one of your concerts?
Fatoumata: A smile and that they keep smiling for days after.
Image: Youri Lenquette