Fatoumata Diawara Interview
She was born in 1982 in the Ivory Coast from Malian Parents, and very early entered the world of arts while dancing, she become a virtuoso of Didadi of Wassoulou, a rhythm coming from her ancestral terroir in West Mali. Later she will seek the path of freedom in a West Africa that is still deeply rooted in certain customs, that confines women mainly to household tasks. The head full of dreams, and the blows of destiny, will put her first on movies set, with the encounter of Cheik Oumar Sissoko who gives her an important role in the film Genesis released in 1999. She will play alongside a sacred monster Of African cinema of regretted memory the comedian Sotigui Kouyaté who will greatly influence her career. Once in France she will make the theater boards and especially make important encounters like Rokia Traoré who encourages her to make music. Next to her acting career as an actress she now has no fewer than 10 films, she will release her first opus titled Fatou in 2011, and then she will participate in projects with some of the most exclusive artists, including Herbie Hancock in imagine project crowned by Grammys in 2011. She will also have an acting role and Co-compose the music of the film nominated for the American Oscars and winner of 7 French Césars, Timbuktu (The grief of the birds), a film of Abderrahmane Sissako released in 2014. She is a globetrotter engaged in the revaluation of the African woman and the culture of the continent; performing in the most famous show venues on both sides of the Atlantic, Asia and Africa. In 2015, she released a live opus with Roberto Fonseca. Between two planes we had the opportunity to have an interview with Fatoumata Diawara. Fatou for the intimate, is a real treat on stage as in talks. She opened to us in a frank and jovial interview, discussing the highlights of her career while giving her opinion on some current issues.
Flashmag: Hello Fatou, the team of Flashmag by my voice welcomes you, the time of this interview our platform is yours?
Fatou: Hello, thanks
So, tell me why so young you got into arts?
Fatou: Since I came to this world, the best communication I found was in arts, I could not find the words easily, I always had this broken voice, when I spoke which refined only when I sang. Artistic expression has always allowed me to free myself. Art for me is the way of God, the way of spirituality, the way of fusion, the way of hope, the positivity, the best mean of communication for me.
When you land in Paris at 18, what are your impressions and goals?
I arrived in Paris in a state of adolescence, and a bit lost. A teenager who was struggling, who needed to find her way, her peace and tranquility. Her freedom as an African woman, who needed to fight to set an example for the next generation. I escaped a forced marriage with a cousin I was a really struggling. At first I was not realizing so far that I had escaped this complex aspect of our customs. It was a lot of suffering, solitude, and reflection. I had to build myself in this solitude to become who I am today.
Why do you go back to Mali in 2001 some would have hoped that logically you had to continue to craft your art, in an environment that offered more options?
In fact, I go back to Mali because the new Minister of Culture at the time Cheick Oumar Sissoko, brings me to the country. As a filmmaker, he had offered me my first role in the movie la Genese (genesis) so he wanted to know what was going on, where was that girl who had played Dina in that movie. He had a project the Opera of the Sahel, a musical that unfortunately was not fruitful. In France I was already engaged with a street theater company, and I worked in the project Kirikou and Karaba in which I had a very important role, Karaba the witch. When I went back to Bamako, it was my first time back home after a hard time, it was difficult. I tried to get in touch with my family, but alas we did not have enough time just a day, after which I went back to France. It is after 2012 that I decided to go to back to Mali. as a singer I needed my land, to stay connected to my roots, to my ancestors who inspire me, in everything I do. Despite the weight of the family, I must reconcile with my ancestors, so that they can help me to last in time. You should make a distinction between my family, and my profession. My ancestor Have always supported me in all situations. It took me some time to understand some things. There is a visible and invisible aspect in our culture that is only mastered over time.
Did your family finally realized that this was your way? What are your relationships now with those who were opposed before to your artistic adventure?
Of course, things have evolved positively, after they did understand. In fact, in my family when I was a child, they were all afraid of my energy because they had difficulty controlling it. I had a certain freedom to express myself, when I had to dance or sing. In fact, I was misunderstood at first because I was a bit special. That is why in my work I advocate the tolerance of difference. When I ran away and they saw my works, it helped to make them understand that it was my way. And that I was on earth, to carry a message. They were very happy when I decided to go back to Mali in 2012. They realized that I was on a mission, and that it was stronger than me, and stronger than them. I have to perpetuate the history of Malian culture that elder notable artists have Started. Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Rokia Traoré, and many others …
Between 2002 and 2008, you do exclusively theater with the Royal de Luxe theater company, of Jean-Luc Courcoult what represents this moment for you?
It was very formative for me. A great school. I believe a lot in destiny. I think God has done everything, to put me on a certain trajectory. The theater showed me how much it’s important to respect your work. I learned rigor in the process of artistic creation. I realized how important it was to get the job done, if you wanted to have positive results. I would repeat from morning till night. we would often play in the open air, even when it was raining and the audience went away, we always finished our plays. I came from Africa, I was playing in the cold, it was not easy but I persevered, I did not let go. It was schooled, in the rough. I did not go to school to be an actress, I learned everything on the job, singing, playing instruments. I learned it all on the job. And I had the chance to meet talented directors like Sotigui Kouyaté or Jean-Luc Courcoult. Today many people ask me how I do, to keep it up. They do not understand, because they didn’t go through the path I have traveled. I can play in Rio today and be the next day in Paris and keep the smile for my audience, because I went through the theater where nature is part of the elements of art.
The music however you do not really let go, because you will be seen contributing to projects of world-famous artists such as; Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cheick Tidiane Seck, Oumou Sangaré, AfroCubism, Poly-Rythmo Orchestra of Cotonou, or Herbie Hancock with Imagine project which will be awarded a Grammy. How these experiences influenced you?
It's been a lot of training, and we're actually, recording the second album; and you'll see that all these encounters have influenced me. All these experiences help me to better express traditional music. I come from a "pentatonic" region (music with 5 notes range very usual, because the limitation of notes allows its application in several genres) I keep the root of Wassoulou, a type of song and rhythm, that comes from my Region of origin, which I apply to several other musical contexts. So, it's a sharing, a musical exchange with the other genres, that allows mutual enrichment. Unconsciously we are the guardians of our culture. And all these great artists have a lot of sensitivity, and we can easily understand each other. Because they understand that this young woman is part of the family. We call her because we know she’s with us in the same court. You know we recognize ourselves, it is not always about technique, but the concordance in the vibration of styles.
In 2011, you release your first opus Fatou. How was the preparation of this album which really puts you on the map of musicians of the world?
It was done very naturally. I learned to play the guitar on that album. A naïve, fragile album, but also a very complicated music. Connoisseurs can understand the subtlety. I went calmly in this album, I said to myself I have all the time to show what I am capable to do. It was an introductory statement of my person, a presentation in fact. Full of simplicity and love.
It is true that music has a universal language, but have you ever tried to sing in a language different from your maternal tongue?
You know sometimes in Paris there are orders, and I have also done several collaborations like for example with Bobby Womack it was very interesting as experience, there are always exchanges or collaborations with artists. With Myriam Makeba, for example, I always adapted. But in fact, I think the African language needs to be worn. I like to see when I perform in China in Japan, in North America in Brazil, in India, people ask me what I tell in my songs. And they tell me, wow! I love this word. This allows me to talk about my Africa. To give her the attention she deserves. To love my Africa and speak with my woman's voice. I like to keep this deep side of Africa, keeping my tongue. This is very important to me. Musically I can go everywhere, I can try all genres, play pieces which are a bit jazzy, funky or reggae. But we need to wear our languages, Myriam Makeba is no longer there, who will sing in our languages if we all sing in English or French? Oumou Sangaré is there, Angélique Kidjo too, but we must continue to preserve our cultural heritage. Young people must be able to continue, what they have already accomplished. There are many young people who sing in English, it’s good but, all of us we cannot do the same thing. I think you should keep that depth. Moreover, it’s nice to listen to.
Yes, I think you’re not the only one who thinks this way, I recently heard Richard Bona, who felt that young people, were not to abandon their original languages in music, same thing in the Caribbean with Jocelyne Béroard who felt that young people, should do a zouk music with more Creole. You have played in a dozen movies and made the theater boards how cinema and theater influenced your music?
The image is very important I love cinema, because I do not actually play I worked with a director, Sotigui Kouyaté, at the age of 14. He trained me a lot I made two films with him he was my dad in Genesis and my uncle in Sia the dream of the python, and after, we made a play for 4 years. I understood with him that a good actor is the one who does not play. when you manage to merge the roles with your person then you can say that you are a good actor. So, I am in this step, remain natural while acting, and there are certain directors who appreciate that like Abdherame Sissako in the film Timbuktu.
You have ben in the big screen along Sotigui Kouyaté, many other journalists believe that he has influenced you in what way?
The curiosity to learn he always told me. I met him at 12, he Coached 2 years before the film was made. He made me understand who I was in life. He taught me how to channel my energy. He always told me, do not waste your time judging others, learn to drive your own bike. Learn to respect others learns to be humble. He has erased the ego in me. It's easy for me to love the other despite its difference, he taught me to see the good side of things. He taught me not to complain, as every day, is a gift from God. He was a wise man, and I had the good fortune to meet him before his departure. He made me understand that learning was infinite.
In September 2012, you took part in a campaign titled "30 Songs / 30 Days" to Support Half the Sky: Transforming Oppression into Women's Opportunities Worldwide, a multi-platform media project inspired by Nicholas Kristof and the book By Sheryl WuDunn. In September 2012, you also attended the Africa Express train with Damon Albarn, Rokia Traoré, Baaba Maal, Amadou and Mariam, Nicolas Jaar and Les Noisettes among others. The show culminated in a concert at the Granary Square in London, where you will play with Paul McCartney how did you feel about this experience?
As I said, artists recognize one another at a certain time there is no age, it is a question of sensitivity and one realizes that, if the planet is going well we are well too, and if It goes wrong we cannot sing. It seems simplistic, but it is a background work of meditation. One must go to the depths of one's soul to touch the souls of others; And very few artists can do it. And when we are together, no one is a star we are all the children of this world. And that reassures when at 28, you live this kind of experiences you understand that you have the answer to what you seek.
You are one of the most loyal representative, of African culture in the world. From your personal experience, how African culture is perceived by the non-African peoples, before whom you have performed? Is there any way to improve this image of African culture in the world, if so how?
I think that at the level where we are Angélique Kidjo, Oumou Sangaré, Rokia Traoré, Salif Keita… Artists who are in the world music, the public respects us very much, I think that Mali has acquired its letter of nobility at world level, earning a lot of Grammys for example. For the rest of the continent and the younger generation I would like to say that if we want this culture to continue to be respected there are important elements that we must preserve, like trying to sing in our language. Let's try not to do in gospel, black Americans already do it pretty well. Let's not try to be copies of others, let’s stay originals. Let's show the world our culture, you know with our Kora our Ngoni our balafon, we have always been respected, I think the trick is to stay authentic. One needs to see the African, like the African who plays a respectable music directly inspired by Its crucible. The improvement I think does not come from the rest of the world, because the world already respects us, it should rather come from us, by respecting ourselves, who we are. In any case this is what I think, it is perhaps to debate.
In any case I agree with you. African wisdom says” it's harder to be someone else than being yourself”.
We understand each other then.
Your country of origin Mali and your country of birth the Ivory Coast, have experienced dramatic events in recent years. As an artist do you think you have your say, to act in the restoration of Peace and in raising awareness among the masses?
Of course, we all have a great role to play, it's like in 2012 In Mali with the song Maliko a collective of artists gathered to raise awareness. To give a chance to peace. Mali was going to a story of genocide north vs south once again. I went to Mali, I joined with all the other singers, Tiken Jah, Salif keita everybody ... and since there was no head of state the artists, were the voice of the state. We got up, and we told the people. Why would you kill your neighbor, because somebody you don’t know told you he's bad? If he was bad, you lived with him for centuries, why you did not realize it. You're smart enough to think for yourself. Music was used with metaphor of little sentences to awaken people's consciousness, and it worked. When I learned that people were going to attack shopkeepers of the north, in Bamako, accusing them, that it is because of them that we are in this situation, I said no it is not possible! We are smart enough to understand that, somebody want to play the pyromaniac firefighter against us. I stopped my tour and I went to Bamako, we sat together and talked. Now the situation is better, it’s tense but it’s stable. All the Tuaregs who left the north are in Bamako. We live together. People were told, what could bring you war, at a time when everyone tries to have a better life? So, everybody today in Mali is in the same reflection and it is better. from that point one can understand that music in Mali is powerful enough, to positively influence the masses.
We cannot never state enough, that African culture is very rich but it tends to sell badly, in your opinion the fault is due to whom? Lack of political will of the African decision makers, or to the artists who have trouble to better Organize, to better enjoy their art?
No, it is the fault of nobody, again, it is up to us to better, work our music. Those who do it well, sell good as well. Toumani behaves very well on the markets, myself with my Album Fatou, it was correct. Many Nigerian singers sell very well, Wizboy and others. They have a public that consumes their music, it is perhaps a different audience but they sell very well. African youths buy their albums. Very good things happen, really positive things. I have the impression that this generation, has understood that we must not feel guilty and assume to be African. A lot of things are happening regarding the look for example, natural hair is fashionable now. Depigmentation of the skin is increasingly doomed. Even the stars who do it are accused. In Mali, some stars have been criticized for these questionable practices. Young people told them you are our showcase, and you show a very bad example. This generation has stopped complaining. It acts.
Your most recent album is a live show called At Home with Roberto Fonseca released in 2015, how was the symbiosis made with Afro Cuban rhythms? A word about this experience?
No there is a new collaboration album that came out two weeks ago. Lamomali, by Matthieu Chedid. At home with Roberto Fonseca was, a very beautiful experience. I am committed on my own way, very calmly. A very strong experience for me because it was the first time, that Cuba went towards a typical African singer. So, I needed to give myself 100%, because the Cubans are our brothers who have travelled, and through the music we find ourselves. So, it was a very emotional experience very affectionate on stage. We're still performing we were in Kenya last year.
What about the opus with Matthieu Chedid, you were talking about?
Let's say that it was Matthew who wanted to join with Malian artists, because of the current situation in our country. A very complicated period of our history. We do not know what is happening in Mali even Malians do not understand what is wrong. We speak of the north, yet northerners themselves, suffer from this situation. There are rebels certainly, but they just make demands on the improvement of the zone, also in the south we can claim the improvement of the conditions of our region, but this Does not imply that we want a military presence there. The matter got complicated and it took on a scale that even the northerners do not understand. Many have fled to Bamako, or Niger, everywhere. The children do not go to school. Matthieu understood the subtlety of the situation, and wanted to wink at the Malian people. Until today in Timbuktu, music cannot be played So, we are in full promo. There is at least 35 dates this summer with Toumani Diabaté, his son Sidiki and me. We are very grateful to Matthieu.
A question that always comes back and that fans like. How your private life affects your artist life is there a link between the two? If yes which one?
It's mostly my past. And above all, being a woman affects a lot my artist life, my femininity affects my music a lot. As a woman, the things have not always been easy especially at the beginning. As a woman, I have so much to express. My son and my husband of course also help me to feel better, to express my art.
It's been a while since the public waits, for your new album. What can you tell your fans?
It’s happening, we just left the studio, by the end of the year you will hear from us.
And regarding movie what it is your actuality on that side?
For the moment, it is in standby. I made two films between the album Fatou and today, for now there are these collaborations, Roberto, Matthieu, this summer also I have a collaboration with Hindi Zahra. I did a lot of casting but now my album is the priority.
When closing this talk, do you have a special word to the public? Some big dates to remember in your agenda?
Dates are in Europe. the United States are not yet in the program. Maybe we will come to the United States next year, because we are on tour until October. Otherwise it will be with my second album. The dates are on my Facebook page and my site also http://www.fatoumatadiawara.com/ A word for the public. I love you, that love reigns. Let’s love one another , and give a chance to all the children of the earth.
Fatou Flashmag and its readers thank you for this interview. Good continuation.
Thank you and see you soon.
Interview by Hubert Marlin Journalist.