Fatoumata Diawara (a.k.a. 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 Wassulu, her ancestral home in western Mali. She was an energetic and headstrong girl and at the age of 12 her refusal to go to school 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 more than a decade.
Her aunt was an actress, and a few years after arriving, Diawara found herself on a film set looking after her aunt’s infant child. The film’s director was captivated by Diawara’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 a lead role in a film by the celebrated director Cheick Omar Sissoko: 1999’s La Genèse (Genesis).
At the age of 18 Diawara traveled 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, Diawara is Sia thanks to the film’s enormous success throughout the region.
Offers for further acting roles poured in but Diawara’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 Diawara 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 Diawara took the daring decision to run away and at the 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, Diawara performed a variety of roles around the world including tours in Vietnam and 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 Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, and Red Earth, the Grammy–winning Malian project by American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. When the albums were released Diawara toured worldwide as singer and dancer with both artists.
On her return to France, Diawara took the role of Karaba in the popular touring musical Kirikou and Karaba. She was encouraged to take the role by her friend Rokia Traoré, who also inspired her to take up the guitar. Diawara bought a guitar and started to teach herself and 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 of the tracks, 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.
Diawara’s EP Kanou was released by World Circuit Records in the U.K. and Europe and by Nonesuch Records in North America. World Circuit released her debut album, Fatou, in Europe and the U.K. in the fall of 2011 to critical acclaim; Nonesuch released the album in North America on August 28, 2012.
Following the release, Diawara performed as part of Damon Albarn’s album and live project Rocket Juice and the Moon, which featured himself, Tony Allen, and Flea. She also is featured on Roberto Fonseca’s most recent release Yo and on Bobby Womack’s album The Bravest Man in the Universe, which was co-produced by Albarn and Richard Russell. Diawara has also toured extensively, selling out venues across Europe, Canada, and Australia.
Diawara recorded a track with soul veteran Bobby Womack for his album The Bravest Man in the Universe. She also appears prominently in Rocket Juice and the Moon, the debut album by the new supergroup Rocket Juice and the Moon featuring Flea, Damon Albarn, and Tony Allen.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel is also co-founder of the Transglobal World Music Chart.
Angel has also produced and remastered world music studio albums and compilations for labels such as Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, and Music of the World.