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Vocalist-activist performs at Arden Theatre

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 06:00 am

AFRICAN FAVOURITE – Fatoumata Diawara will sing in the Wassoulou language on Jan. 29.
AFRICAN FAVOURITE – Fatoumata Diawara will sing in the Wassoulou language on Jan. 29.
Supplied photo

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Fatoumata Diawara
Wednesday, Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m.
Arden Theatre
5 St. Anne Street
Tickets: $32 plus facility fee. Call 780-459-1542 or purchase online at

Back in 2011 after Fatoumata Diawara released her first full-length album Fatou, she was hailed as the next big African newcomer on the world scene.

Just a sparse three years later, the Malian-raised Paris-living singer-songwriter’s star continues to ascend. She has confidently delivered a series of solo shows and opened for major headliners in large venues and open-air festivals.

The charismatic vocalist has sung at the Glastonbury Music Festival, performed with Paul McCartney at London’s King’s Cross for the African Express Train, and shared the stage alongside Roots at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29 the Malian folk musician stops in St. Albert for her Arden Theatre debut performance.

What sets her music apart is the political-social-spiritual consciousness behind it. For instance, after Malian Islamist extremists attempted to take control in 2011, Diawara gathered a super-group of the country’s musicians to record a peace song.

The Islamist insurgents banned music and threatened to cut off musicians’ hands and tongues. In a country where music is key to its identity, Diawara invited 40 Malian musicians to Bamako.

The high profile musicians, including Habib Koité, who performed at the Arden in Feb. 2013, recorded the banner single Mali-ko. It translates into Peace.

“The situation is getting better and better. People know what is happening and what needs to be done to make it better,” says Diawara in a telephone interview from her Parisian home.

She explains that music is part of the power of her countrymen.

“It is the truth. It is real. Music is something very spiritual in Mali. Music is everything. Mali is one of the few countries where we still use our ancestral instruments. It keeps us in touch with our roots.”

Born in 1982 in Côte d’Ivoire, Diawara became part of her father’s dance troupe at a very young age. She was a popular dancer of the didadi dance from Wassoulou, her ancestral home in western Mali.

Energetic and headstrong, she refused to go to school and was sent to live with an actress aunt in Bamako. One day while the adolescent was on set, the film director was charmed by her, and gave her one line in the film Taafe Fangan (The Power of Women).

Director Cheick Omara Sissoko spotted her and offered her a lead role in his 1999 film La Genese (Genesis).

By the time Diawara was 18, she travelled to Paris to perform the classical Greek role Antigone on stage. Upon returning to Mali, she was cast in the 2001 film Sia, The Dream of the Python. It tells the story of the legendary Sia, a West African girl who defies tradition.

Real life soon copied art when a year later Jean-Louis Courcoult, the director of Royale de Luxe theatre company offered her a part in his new production.

Diawara’s parents refused to let her go. In the Malian culture of traditional arranged marriages, it was time to settle down.

Rebelling against her parents’ traditional wishes, the determined actress ran away from home and boarded an airplane for Paris narrowly escaping police who were alerted to her “kidnapping.”

Performing on stage, film, clubs and cafes, and touring the world has honed her craft. Inspiring to some, she is controversial to others.

In her music, Diawara not only pleads with African leaders to stop war. The 32-year-old singer is deeply committed to fighting against the oppression of women. She speaks frankly about their problems and unabashedly articulates their desires.

For instance, the 12-track Fatou includes the song Boloko, an original composition that speaks of the genital mutilation of women.

“It’s important to talk about it. Many girls are dying every day. It’s important for me to start a conversation. We are a new generation and it is possible to make changes. If women don’t start to talk and do something, men won’t.”

The song Bissa questions both arranged marriages and the more taboo romantic relationships.

“I like writing little stories. This one is about a girl who decided to choose her husband. The man she chose didn’t treat her very well and she was embarrassed. She is asking whether she should have accepted an arranged marriage.”

Now that Diawara has grown into a force as both a vocalist and activist, what are her parents’ thoughts?

“They changed totally. They are proud of me. No one has done this before in my ancestral family. I have also become important for girls in Mali. And I am happy to speak for them.”

Often costumed wearing a traditional head-wrap, Diawara sings in her native Wassoulou.

“When I’m on stage, I don’t want to be different from my public. I work on the truth of music. It is about the moment. I like the intensity. I can see it in their (audiences) faces. They are with me and they have a good time with Fatou.”


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