Fatoumata Diawara (born 1982) is a Malian musician currently living in France. Born in the Ivory Coast to Malian parents, Diawara moved to France to pursue acting, appearing in Cheikh Oumar Cissoko's 1999 feature film La Genèse, Dani Kouyaté's popular 2001 film Sia, le rêve du python, in the internationally renowned street theatre troupe Royal Deluxe, and played a leading role in the musical Kirikou et Karaba. She later took up the guitar and began composing her own material, writing songs that blend Wassalou traditions of Southern Mali with international influences. Noted for her distinct "sensuous voice,”  she has performed and recorded with Oumou Sangaré, AfroCubism,, Dee Dee Bridgewater (on Red Earth: A Malian Journey), and the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Her new EP was released May 9, 2011 and her debut album Fatou with World Circuit Records was released in September 2011.
In her teens, Fatoumata Diawara moved to France to pursue an acting career. She appeared in a handful of films and worked with a street theater troupe but really found her calling later, when she took up the guitar and started writing songs. Born in Cote d'Ivoire and raised in southern Mali, Diawara grew up hearing Wassoulou music, a song style that's thought by some ethnomusiclogists to be one of the main pre-colonial ancestors of blues. The Wassoulou cultural area is now split between three countries, but it has a history that extends back centuries, and Diawara merges that long, traditional history with a modern, globalized sensibility on her debut album.
Diawara has honed her performing and recording craft through work with AfroCubism, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, and Herbie Hancock, among others, so really the big step here is to recording her own songs with her own arrangements. She has a voice with a naturally sensual glide to it that sometimes reminds me a little of Sade. Unlike many of her peers, such as Oumou Sangaré, power is not really a part of her style-- she keeps her singing even and steady to complement the hypnotic, cycling guitar parts of her arrangements. The album is quietly intense, rarely rising above the volume of ordinary conversation.
Diawara sings in her native Wassoulou language, but understanding the exact content of the songs isn't necessary to enjoy them. There's plenty of information in the melodies and rhythms, and inventive musicianship as well. Diawara locks in with the simmering funk backdrop of "Bissa" by playing harmonics on her guitar instead of full chords. The electric leads seem to float up out of the patterns; several times over the course of the album, I found myself caught up in a flowing solo that I didn't even notice when it started. This is how the whole record works. There's no fanfare, nothing is announced. It simply surrounds you with its atmosphere.
It is an ultimately beguiling album because of this. Even in its most demonstrative moments, such as the shivering lead guitar line that opens "Bakonoba", it's a record you can sink into and enjoy for its sonics as well as its songwriting. "Bakonoba" is among the songs with the strongest West African character, and that guitar is a big part of it-- it's reminiscent of the type of lead Malian guitarists Djelimady Tounkara or Kanté Manfila might have once laid down for the Rail Band. Otherwise, Diawara is one of a growing number of musicians working on a sort of pan-folk sound that incorporates influences from across a broad Afro-Western cultural spectrum. It's an approach that may be a better fit for the "world music" label than any of the highly localized sounds that tag's often applied to.
Fatoumata Diawara (aka Fatou) was born of Malian parents in the Ivory Coast in 1982. As a child she became a member of her father's dance troupe and was a popular performer of the wildly flailing didadi dance from Wassoulou, her ancestral home in western Mali. She was an energetic and headstrong girl and at the age of twelve her refusal to go to school finally prompted her parents to send her to live and be disciplined by an aunt in Bamako. She was not to see her parents again for over a decade.
Her aunt was an actress, and a few years after arriving, Fatou found herself on a film set looking after her aunt's infant child. The film's director was captivated by Fatou's adolescent beauty and she was given a one line part in the final scene of the film 'Taafe Fangan' ('The Power of Women'). This led to her being given a lead role by the celebrated director Cheick Omar Sissoko in his 1999 film 'La Genèse' (Genesis).
At the age of eighteen Fatou travelled to Paris to perform the classical Greek role of Antigone on stage. After touring with the production she returned to Mali where she was given the lead in Dani Kouyaté's popular 2001 film 'Sia, The Dream of the Python'. The film tells the story of a West African legend called Sia, a young girl who defies tradition. To many in Mali, Guinea, Senegal and Burkina Faso, Fatou is Sia thanks to the film's enormous success throughout the region.
Offers for further acting roles poured in but Fatou's family wanted her to settle down and marry and forced her to announce, live on Malian television, that she was abandoning her career as an actress.
In 2002 Jean-Louis Courcoult, the director of the renowned French theatre company, Royale de Luxe, travelled to Bamako to offer Fatou a part in his new production. An unmarried woman is considered a minor in Malian society so her family's permission was required. They refused. After much soul searching Fatou took the daring decision to run away and at Bamako airport she managed to board a plane for Paris, narrowly escaping the pursuit of the police who had been alerted to the girl's 'kidnapping'.
With Royal de Luxe Fatou performed a variety of roles around the world including tours in Vietnam, Mexico and throughout Europe. During rehearsals and quiet moments she took to singing backstage for her own amusement. She was overheard by the director and was soon singing solo during the company's performances. Encouraged by the reception from audiences she began to sing in Parisian clubs and cafes during breaks from touring. Here she met Cheikh Tidiane Seck the celebrated Malian musician and producer who invited her to travel with him back to Mali to work on two projects as chorus vocalist; 'Seya' the GRAMMY nominated album by Mali's star Oumou Sangaré and 'Red Earth' the GRAMMY winning Malian project by American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. When the albums were released Fatou toured worldwide as singer and dancer with both projects.
On her return to France Fatou took the role of Karaba in the popular touring musical 'Kirikou and Karaba'. She was encouraged to take the role by her friend Rokia Traore who also inspired her to take up the guitar: "To me it was a wonderful and daring thing: a Malian girl with an acoustic guitar. Why should the guitar be only for men?" Fatou bought herself a guitar and started to teach herself, and at the same time began to write down her own compositions.
She made the decision to dedicate herself to her passion, music. She worked to complete an album's worth of songs and started recording demos for which she composed and arranged all the titles, as well as playing guitar, percussion, bass and singing lead and harmony vocals. An introduction from Oumou Sangaré resulted in a record deal with World Circuit and the recording of her debut album.
Between recording sessions she found time to collaborate on Damon Albarn's Africa Express and contribute vocals to albums by Cheikh Lô, AfroCubism, Herbie Hancock's GRAMMY winning Imagine Project and Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
Fatou's EP 'Kanou' is released on 9 May, 2011 followed by her debut album 'Fatou' on 19 September, 2011 (29 September in France).
Album Review: Fatoumata Diawara, Fatou The Malian singer-songwriter brings Wassoulou vocals to acoustic folk.
Hailed as Africa’s best interpretation of the "girl with a guitar” archetype, Fatoumata Diawara is the latest Malian to be signed by World Circuit, the label that provided a platform for such legends as Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré. While these two were very much Malian exports, Diawara holds a closer tie to Europe.
"Now I compose all my songs with a guitar instead of a kamalen n’goni (a six stringed harp)”, she tells me. "This was a big change for me”. Compare this attitude with the climax of World Circuit’s Malian ventures - Diabaté and Farka Touré’s formidable In the Heart of the Moon - and we have an artist who comes closer to acoustic folk music than traditional African genres. Despite singing in Wassoulou she seems to play down her African identity, choosing instead to cite Paris as her main source of inspiration.
"It’s an amazing place; you can listen to genuine, authentic music from all over Africa, but you can also listen to more modern styles that you cannot find in Mali or Senegal.”
This microcosm of cultures does not, however, swamp over the spacious elements that make Fatou a great acoustic album. The minimal guitar and percussion style of the opening track prevails throughout. Diawara’s passionate, emotionally-charged vocals hold the kind of strength that lives up to her inevitable Tracy Chapman comparisons; like Chapman, Diawara is an important female voice in a society controlled by men.
Unlike Chapman, Diawara’s themes are obstructed by a language barrier, and this is at the heart of why she fills such a niche for World Circuit. It would be disrespectful to enjoy her music and not research into these themes: a woman’s right to choose her marriage partner on Bissa, the controversial subject of female circumcision on Boloco and the common African practice of giving children to be raised by others on Sowa. The sounds of the words have an aesthetic beauty. She tells of how she came to realise her potential:
"When I started to sing with a guitar in Paris, people instantly recognised my voice as African. I tried to disguise my accent, but they could always tell. This worked in my favour. Many people invited me into their projects to give an African influence by singing Wassoulou lines.”
"And why Mali?” I ask, curious as to why the country boasts such a wealth of musical talent.
"Mali will never give up its tradition,” she says with proud smile. "We have our unique instruments that have remained unchanged for many years. The climate is harsh, and it can be hard for other influences to come in. The result is that in every village the music is different. Every region has its style and now we can mix these in making new music; it’s no problem.”
Fatou is due for release by World Circuit on the 19th of September.
eil Spencer guardian.co.uk, Saturday 17 September 2011 23.30 BST Article history Buy it from Buy the CD Download as MP3
Fatoumata Diawara Fatou World Circuit 2011
Raised in Mali but resident in Paris for a decade, this ex-actress brings a dash of cosmopolitan elegance to her Wassoulou roots. Fatou supplements her guitar-playing – Diawara is very much the singer-songwriter – with jazzy electric piano and subtle touches of west African harp and lute. The result is a folksy sound that allows her lithe vocals and forceful songs to shine. Like fellow Mali singer Oumou Sangaré, to whom she dedicates a song, Diawara champions women's causes, denouncing arranged marriage and female circumcision, though she also delivers simple love calls such as the opening "Kanou". An impressive debut from a powerful new voice.