Fatoumata Diawara, Capilano University NSCU Centre for the Performing Arts, Monday, June 24 at 8 p.m. as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Tickets $30/$28. For more information and complete schedule visit coastaljazz.ca.
EVEN though she was born in Abidjan, CÃ´te d'Ivoire and is based in Paris, France, Fatoumata Diawara considers Mali her home and that was the reason she swung into action last year when all hell broke loose in the north of the country.
After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, Al Qaeda-allied Islamists saw an opportunity to extend their reach further into Sahara Desert regions and took control over much of Mali's north. France and West African neighbours helped Mali initiate a counter-offensive against the invaders earlier this year. A French-led military intervention recaptured the northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao from Islamist insurgents and dismantled the militants' main base in the Ifoghas Mountains in northeastern Mali, near the Algerian border. Although the move defused the situation somewhat Islamic militant groups such as The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in Algeria and Boko Haram in Nigeria are continuing to harass and spread terror throughout West African populations.
Diawara, 30, returned to Mali in December of last year to mobilize the artistic community and help spread the word about what was happening in her homeland. She put together a supergroup of musicians, Voices United for Mali, to record the song "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)" at Studio Bogolan in Bamako. More than 40 musicians assembled over a three-day period to cut the seven-minute track. After two weeks of sound mixing and video production the finished song was released on Jan. 17.
"What's going on in Mali?" Fatoumata Diawara sings in the Wassoulou language of southern Mali as she takes a turn at the microphone. "Do we really want to kill each other? Do we really want to betray one another? Allow ourselves to be divided? Remember, we are all children of the same mother country when we stand together, all of Africa is stronger." (youtube. com/watch?v=elwA7SHM8_U).
"It was necessary to do this project," says Diawara. "We didn't have a president - nobody to talk to the Malian population about peace. People didn't know what to do and they were very angry about their brothers from the north, saying it was the Tuareg's fault and it's not you know. It is important for the artists in Mali to do the right thing. 'Don't kill your brother, we do not want a genocide situation.' Mali is very special, it's not a war country. It's very peaceful. I can see the impact of the project because people can see it now on television and on the radio. Everybody plays
the song - you can get it on your phone for free in Bamako. You can hear it every day. I'm really surprised. It's more than I was expecting.
"When I came up with the idea people were very happy," says Diawara. "They said, please, let's do that and thank you so much for your idea.
'Don't kill, don't be angry about your own brothers from the north.' Many are victims of this situation. Take your time. Think. This song was for that and it works. It's a really sad moment in our lives. Every artist was in Bamako at that time because we love our country. Oumou SangarÃ©, Toumani DiabatÃ©, Amoudou & Mariam - everybody was in Bamako at that time."
As a child Diawara became a member of her father's Abidjan troupe performing dances from the Wassoulou tradition, their family's ancestral home in southwestern Mali. "Dance was my first language," she says. "When I was a child I was always smiling even if I was not happy I was always smiling. If I wasn't dancing my parents would say 'Fatou is ill today.' Dance was my first language and then I started to sing when I lost my sister. We were very close and she passed when she was 10 and I was nine. I started to sing to (keep her) close to me. When I sing I feel better than when I'm talking. Music is like medicine for me. I don't sing for the technical side I sing to express what I feel in my soul. Dance is the same way."
At a young age Diawara's parents sent her to live with relatives in Bamako where she was "discovered" by film director Adama Drabo. "My aunt was an actress and she brought me on the movie set and the director saw me," she says. "He loved my smiling and my positive way and he invited me to say a couple of lines in the movie (Taafe Fanga/The Power of Women, 1996) and I started like that. After this movie people called me. Every year I did movies and some of them were very popular in Mali. When you go to Bamako today and you say I'm looking for Fatoumata Diawara people will think for a little bit but if you say the name of one my characters when I was younger, Sia, everybody will know.
Everybody knows me by that name."
Shortly after her film career got underway Diawara also began performing in theatre and at the age of 18 travelled to Paris to portray the title role in Peter Brook's production of Antigone on stage. After touring with the production she returned to Mali where she was given the lead in Dani KouyatÃ©'s popular 2001 film Sia, le rÃªve du python/Sia, The Dream of the Python.
"My energy is more for stage," she says. "I love to be on stage. I started acting on stage with one of the great theatrical artists Peter Brook. When I'm on stage I don't think of anything else - you and me - I like the moment when I'm with people and that's something you have in the theatre. It's live. It's now."
Reacting against a forced marriage she did not want to be a part of, Diawara moved permanently to France at the age of 20. She joined the Royal de Luxe theatre company and travelled the world as an actor rejecting the life her parents had planned for her. She was called upon to sing in some of her roles and began to perform more and more. In between tours with the theatrical company Diawara would perform in clubs and with the encouragement of musicians Cheikh Tidiane Seck and Rokia TraorÃ© she picked up the guitar and began to compose her own music. Her debut album, Fatou, was released in 2011 on World Circuit Records to world-wide acclaim. The disc features 12 original tracks sung in the Wassoulou language and includes guest shots from Tony Allen (Fela's seminal drummer) and Toumani DiabatÃ© (kora) and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
"I'm very sensitive," says Diawara. "I was born an African and I grow up there where women's conditions are very difficult. I did everything by myself with no help from my mother or father in this life. I would like to encourage other girls to do what they want to do because life is short. Don't lose time - go now and with this sensibility I write everything. I love melodies. I love to touch people with melodies and then the lyrics will come after. I start to play guitar when I'm rehearsing. When I like a melody I record and listen, listen, listen to it many times and try to find the voices. Like a couple - the guitar can be the man and the voices become the woman. I need to create a family with my guitar and my voices and when I have both I can invite my musicians to hear what I have."
Diawara encounters music everywhere and records while she's touring. "My last recording was in Minneapolis. I went in to the studio and recorded two songs. Wherever I get the chance. Music is everywhere. I don't need to be in Mali or in France. Every sonority you hear you can try to translate. Every sound around you can give you inspiration.
"I'm going to wait a little bit before making my second album because I want to learn more about North American audiences.
Meet them, share my soul, share my culture and the new Malian music and try to learn about each other together. I'm going to take my time. I'm very excited."
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