Diawara to perform Wassoulou traditional music at Hop
By Kunyi Li
Published on Thursday, September 27, 2012
With vocals that have mesmerized thousands in venues across Europe, Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara will bring her hypnotic songs to a Dartmouth audience in Spaulding Auditorium in the Hopkins Center on Saturday at 8 p.m. Diawara, who channels the joy and struggle of womanhood through melodies that fuze styles including jazz, funk, pop and her ancestral Wassoulou music, will also join Dartmouth students in discussion in women’s and gender studies classes.
Born to Malian parents in Cote d’Ivoire in 1982, Diawara traversed a wide range of creative endeavors before her sudden rise to fame as a singer last year with her overwhelmingly positive reception in the United Kingdom. As early as age 12, Diawara left her parents’ home in Wassoulou, located in southwest Mali, and was introduced to the acting world of her aunt in Mali’s capital, Bamako. There, she began her acting career, which propelled her to first seize the national spotlight with her lead role in “La Genese” (1999) by celebrated Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko.
“I started my acting because I think people chose me to be in acting.” Diawara said. “I went with my aunt one day to the cinema, and her director wanted me to play something. After that, I did 10 years of acting.”
Her chance entrance into the acting world then led her across the Mediterranean to tour through Europe in a production of the classical Greek play “Antigone.” After her success in Europe, she donned the garments of her native continent once again, acting the titular role of the popular Burkinabe film “Sia, the Dream of the Python” (2001).
Soon, serendipity struck once more when she accepted the personal offer of director Jean-Louis Courcoult to join the renowned French theater company Royale de Luxe. Her second return to Europe was no less dramatic than the fictional lives she brought to life on stage — her parents forbid their unmarried daughter to leave with the power accorded by custom. In an act of rebellion, she boarded a midnight plane to Paris after barely escaping the pursuit of policemen, according to the upcoming production’s program notes.
However, through her many tours across the globe, singing eventually became more important in her life than acting. Her backstage humming and chanting that she used to pass the time during rehearsals caught the attention of Courcoult, the director who began to give her singing solos in company performances. She began to sing in Parisian clubs and cafes during breaks from touring. Her musical talent was recognized by two Grammy Award-nominated musicians, Mali’s Oumou Sangare and American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.
“Singing is something I decided to do,” Diawara said. “I’m not afraid to sing. I can sing in the bathroom, when I’m alone or waiting. I’m a woman. I’m young, but sometimes I feel like I’m 60 years old in my mind. It’s good to be empowered but you have to share it [through music.]”
After touring with the two prominent musicians as a chorus vocalist, she starred as Karaba the sorceress in the wildly popular musical “Kirikou and Karaba.” She dedicated herself to her newfound musical passion, teaching herself guitar and beginning to compose her own songs. In this time she recorded a prolific range of songs, while contributing to Cheikh Lo’s album “AfroCubism.”
“I grew up with traditional music,” she said. “In Mali, we have a strong sense of custom. You can learn modern music at school, but if you want to know more, you really have to look for it. I discovered Nina Simone, Derek Fisher, all the classics of rock, pop, jazz. I try to bring their essence into my music. The mixture between traditional music and modern music helped me to experiment with my style.”
Her most popular works were compiled in the EP “Kanou” and later in her first album “Fatou,” released last year to critical acclaim. The music video for the soulful and delightful single “Bissa” is on YouTube with more than 270,000 views. The video shows a montage of scenes shot in suburbs of Mali and Paris, and she walks in a richly adorned yellow dress with an unwavering smile that easily infects the viewer with her joy.
“‘Bissa’ — it means ‘today,’” she said. “It’s who I am, you know? You wake up every day and think who you want to be. I don’t understand everything in my life. I don’t want to be apprehensive. But I want to always stay positive.”
Diawara had the opportunity to showcase the positives of her community in Mali to two sections of the class “Sex, Gender and Society.” In an intimate classroom in Dartmouth Hall packed with dozens of students, Diawara spoke about her own upbringing and many of the issues that face women in her culture, including the horror of genital mutilation.
“I was obviously impressed about her,” Aki Bowers ’16, a member of the class, said. “I think she’s very brave to sing about these things in her song, bringing it to life. I think it’s interesting to get an outside perspective, since we are so removed from everything. It definitely makes it valuable to hear about her experiences.”
A sense of optimism pervades the percussive beats and joyful voicing in her songs. This is the feeling that Diawara wants to convey about Africa to her audience, apart from the image of violence and poverty that Western audiences typically associate with her home.
“I would like to share my culture, my country,” Diawara said. “If I manage to bring them spiritually closer to my country, it would be like we are traveling together. It’s not only war, it’s not only famine — it’s also a beautiful place with many things to love.”
She will be returning to the United States later this year and in the summer of 2014 to perform at a variety of venues across the nation, according to her touring manager, Mel Puljic.
“I invite everybody to my shows,” Diawara said. “I want to tell my audience that we can all do something very good nice, positive, simple.”