Motorco Music Hall, Durham
The Malian singer, songwriter, and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara feels at home anywhere. Whether in West Africa, where she’s from; in Paris, where she made a name for herself as a theater and film actor; or in Italy, where she lives now with her husband and son; Diawara feels that we have a birthright to travel and explore.
“Human beings are just spirit,” she says. “And spirit likes to connect with different things, all the time.” Recently, Diawara connected with the audience at the Grammy Awards, where Fenfo, her second solo album, was nominated in the best world music album category. She also received a nomination for best dance recording with the electronic duo Disclosure.
Diawara’s style is strongly influenced by Wassoulou music, a West African genre that helped inspire American blues, but on Fenfo, she moves away from the intimate sound of her debut, Fatou, and toward bold, tension-building songs that have a funky, sizzling backbone. What hasn’t changed is her social consciousness: Her new songs deal with immigration policy, domestic abuse, and cultural assimilation. Before she performs in Duke Performances’ Black Atlantic festival this week we reached her in Italy via Skype to discuss how her acting background informs her musical performances and how she balances thorny topics with gorgeous songs.
INDY: What was your path to becoming a musician?
FATOUMATA DIAWARA: As you know, it’s still very difficult for a woman to be a leader. It may look easy when you see somebody playing on stage, but it’s still a big fight. There are many women who sing, but you can only have 100 percent freedom when you know about an instrument. It’s not enough to be a great singer, because people will write music for you, and sometimes you don’t like it, and you just have to follow. To be able to get towards freedom, I needed to be able to compose everything. Then, when I need somebody, they can bring something, but only on top of what I’ve been doing already. Guitar is everything to me.
You recently performed your song “Negue Negue” at the Grammys, fronting an enormous band and playing lead guitar in a setting where women are still underrepresented as instrumentalists. What did you want to get across in this performance?
This performance gave a lot of hope to many young artists in my country. And I had very good feedback coming from people who couldn’t believe how important it was for them to see a female artist there. There have been many, many artists coming from Mali, but they were all men. It was Ali Farka Touré; it was Toumani Diabaté. It was a big honor to me to perform as an African woman, keeping her origin and being herself.
You have worked with artists who are all over the map, genre-wise, from Blur’s Damon Albarn to The Roots to Ethiopian jazz master Mulatu Astatke. How do you keep your core self intact while also collaborating with others?
It’s very easy for me to connect with myself. I always have this little voice in my mind, where I can be with people, but I’m always with myself. This is very strong within me because I grew up alone. I didn’t grow up with any friends. I was supposed to go to school and come back and work for my aunt. I am a lonely person, but at the same time, when I am on stage, I can open my heart. I can adapt myself to any situation. I’m lucky for that. And it’s the same with the music. It’s totally normal for me to sing on electronic music, or rock, or pop. It’s all music.
How does your work as an actor influence your music?
Acting influenced my music in that, when I started to go on stage with my own songs, I was ready. I was feeling good. I started when I was fourteen years old, and I was a little bit shy then, but I generally have never been a shy girl. I’m very curious. And acting had a big impact on my presence on stage because there’s no fear. I don’t think too much when I go on stage, I just go. I’m excited all the time.
Your music is beautiful and, at the same time, goes into difficult social topics. How do you approach writing music that has these painful or sensitive qualities?
I always want to talk about important subjects, but with hope. Music is supposed to heal people. For me, the aim of music, in the beginning, was to make people happy. I want to connect with my audience through my voice, and because of that, all my melodies are positive. They’re things you can remember, things you can sing even if you don’t speak the language. And the subject, it’s like a second spirit of the music, to say, “This is what Fatoumata Diawara thinks about this subject,” like migration. It’s my opinion. It’s like a conversation between the audience and me. Or, when I’m affected by a subject, the song is often about the questions asked by the voiceless of the world, who most of the time are children and women.
What do you do during your time off on tour? What will you do in North Carolina?
I like to connect with nature because, in Mali, we’re still in touch with the Earth. I’ve been to North Carolina, and I know there are many places where nature is very strong, and it’s green everywhere. I love North Carolina.