Fatoumata Diawara | photo by Aida Muluneh | courtesy of the artist
In conversation with Mali music queen Fatoumata Diawara
Don’t let the soft sensuality of Fatoumata Diawara’s voice fool you.
The passionate Ivory Coast-born, Malian singer-songwriter — known best to American ears from her Grammy Award nomination for Best World Music Album (for her 2018 album Fenfo) — is an inspired, insightful and socially motivated lyricist focused on radicalism and the concerns of her homeland such as genital mutilation and domestic violence. She just happens to sweeten her tone with swaying melodies and a shiny modernist take on ancient arrangements. Plus, she’s a mean guitar player in a live setting.
From her home in France, Diawara answered a set of questions in anticipation of her World Café Live date on February 19.
The Key: We’re just coming off the Grammys, so this is fresh on my mind. You took part in last year’s Grammys celebration ceremonies and were nominated in several categories, one for “Fenfo” and the other for you collaboration with Disclosure (“Ultimatum”) ). How was all that pomp and circumstance?
Fatoumata Diawara: It was really a blessing. I felt very proud for the work that was done and I was grateful for the recognition.
TK: What did you think of the event though? And, what do you believe the crowd you gathered around you thought of what you were doing as your music is so beyond THEIR mainstream?
FD: I hope that they enjoyed what they heard. I was proud to have the opportunity to play live as there are not many African women that play electric guitar. I felt like I was showing to the younger African generation that all is possible if you fight for it.
TK: Has there always been a formula in your head to what you are doing — lyrics that are bravely dramatic socially aware and politically astute messages about the slave trade, migrant rights, genital mutilation, the allowance of domestic violence and antiquated arranged marriage with spare, sweet melody — or are you improvising within or during the writing/recording process?
FD: The is no formula, but, my eyes are wide open to what is happening in the world. I have a huge chance to be heard so I cannot ignore what is happening.
TK: Having listened to both of your studio albums, of course there is talk of Afrofuturism within the work. I hear the electronics, so I get that. So much of Fenfo though, in reality, sounds and feels truly traditional, save for the sheen of production. Can you discuss the balance, the intention, of making music aged but modern…where the twists and challenges remain for you?
FD: All my learnings came from the traditional music, which was my school so it’s integrated on my soul. It comes naturally when I compose, but at the same time, I am young so totally open to learn and explore other sounds that will add some modernity to my music. I think this is natural. Also, there was a gap of around 5 years from my first record Fatou to Fenfo, so this gave me the space to grow musically speaking.
TK: Sometimes subtly, sometimes not, you always speak /sing against the political infrastructure of Africa. How do you think that your work has brought about awareness and change?
FD: I have always been concerned about trying to give the right message, but I hope to have rich leaders’ consciences. I have always been worried about women and children the most. The world is getting more and more chaotic, so migration is also an issue that makes me very sad, as is the image that the world has about Africa. I want to be the voice for those that are silenced and yes this feeling has grown even more now that I am also a mother.
TK: What is your writing process like? What usually comes first, between words or music? When working with own music’s melodic collaborators, what is your criteria or needs? And what has changed about that process since your start?
FD: Heritage is a big part of understanding music and a key element for my compositions. In any case, it may sound a bit unreal but I can get inspiration from the sounds of water drops, or an engine for example. It’s really a very natural process.
TK: Fenfo is quite a lyrically and sonically challenging album. Was there one song that was the most challenging for you to work on?
FD: All of them were a challenge to work on. This was my second album after 5 years so I carefully choose the repertoire for this album.
TK: What can you tell me about the politics of “Mama”? I know that you are a mother, but the song embraces so much more.
FD: Mama is what a mother listens to from her baby’s mind about this world. A baby is telling her – “Why are you bringing me to this world where people are fighting where there is no respect?”
TK: What can you tell me about your guitar playing during your live shows? Is it rough-edged and angular or fluid? And who are you guitar heroes?
FD: I am self-taught — nobody taught me to play guitar — and very fluid. I am very fond of Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters.
TK: I am not asking you to dish the dirt, but you have recorded with, or worked with a fascinating array of brand name artists: Flea, Herbie Hancock, and Damon Albarn. Was there one amazing or weird work/collaboration that stands out in your mind?
FD: To be honest, all of them have been amazing experiences that have brought knowledge and made me grow, so that has really been the biggest highlight.
The Key: I started my interview asking you how industry professionals reacted to you and your work. You have played in the U.S. and to American and African audiences. Can you tell me how African Americans and Africans who have immigrated to the U.S. react to your work…what you hear from these communities?
FD: From what I can tell, they seemed to have enjoyed my shows so I must suppose that they react positively to my music.
TK: If there is one message before you come to Philadelphia – the birthplace of American liberty – what might that be?
FD: All my respect to the City of Brotherly Love – I cannot wait to share a vibrant and a very positive experience with you all. Peace.
Fatoumata Diawara plays World Cafe Live with Sonni Shine on Wednesday, February 19th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.