Hailed as one of the most vital standard-bearers of modern African music, Fatoumata Diawara is the voice of young African womanhood – proud of her heritage but with a vision that looks confidently to the future and a message that is universal.
One of 11 children born to Malian parents in Ivory Coast in 1982, she grew up in the 1990s in the Malian capital Bamako. Fiercely independent from a young age, she became a celebrated child actor and in 2001 starred in Dani Kouyaté’s film Sia, The Dream of the Python, based on an ancient myth about a young girl who runs away from her family.
Real life followed fiction, and against the wishes of her parents who wanted her to marry, she fled Bamako at the age of 19 to join the French street theatre company Royale de Luxe, narrowly escaping the pursuit of the police who had been told she was being ‘kidnapped’.
Touring the world with Royal de Luxe, her singing became a feature of the company’s performances. Encouraged by the favourable reception, she then began singing in the clubs and cafes of Paris.
That in turn led to her backing the American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Malian superstar Oumou Sangaré on tour and on record and brought her to the attention of the World Circuit label, which released her acclaimed debut album in 2011.
Her spectacular 2011 debut album Fatou made the Malian singer and guitarist the most talked about new African artist on the planet. 2018’s FENFO (which translates as “something to Say”’) further fulfilled that promise.
She has worked with some of the biggest names in contemporary music. She recorded with Bobby Womack and Herbie Hancock; played Glastonbury and other major festivals; and toured with the Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca. She assembled a West African super-group featuring Amadou and Mariam, Oumou Sangaré and Toumani Diabaté to record a song calling for peace in her troubled homeland; and climbed aboard Damon Albarn’s star-studded Africa Express, which culminated in her sharing a stage with Sir Paul McCartney. She has teamed up with Damon Albarn again for a new tune (with an amazing video) called “Nsera” and she is on tour opening for Albarn’s Gorillaz this winter. The track is the first offering from her new album due out in 2023.
She has also continued her parallel career as an actor, including an acclaimed appearance in 2014’s Timbuktu (Le chagrin des oiseaux), which received both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations.
She shared the stage at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall with the likes of David Crosby and Snarky Puppy in an evening of topical protest songs – and, according to many, stole the show. “Fatoumata Diawara, the singer and guitarist originally from Mali, provided two of the night’s most striking moments,” Rolling Stone reported. “Her ode to the power of women, “Mousso,” sung in her native language, was hypnotic, and her captivating stage spins enhanced her anthemic “Unite.”
She has also worked courageously as a social activist, campaigning against the trafficking and sale of black migrants in Libyan slave markets and recording the song “Djonya” (it means ‘slavery’ in Bambará) in which she restates the universal, but often sadly disregarded, truth that we all belong to the same human race regardless of colour, ethnicity or religion.