SPECIAL REPORT: Afro-pop music

Afro-pop musician who sings for African women…reports Mohammed Shafeeq 

Fatoumata Diawara
Fatoumata Diawara

Disowned by her family for daring to challenge traditions by acting in films, Fatoumata Diawara ran away from home to act in theatre. She now sings not just for her passion but for women and children of Africa.

Currently based in Paris, the singer for Mali, in western Africa, shares her story and emotions through the songs and highlights the problems faced by women and children in Africa, especially the genital mutilation of women.

As the one who took to dancing at the age of 12, and later acting in films and theatre and finally singing, the musician is touring India.

She performed in Delhi and Hyderabad this week at the ‘Masters of World Music’ of Blackberry Sharp Nights. With an acoustic guitar, she sings the songs penned by her and also dances in the unique West African style. Her jazz and funk keep the audience spellbound.
“Music is universal. It is not the language that one has to understand. You have to feel the music. I am using this powerful communication to share my experiences,” Diawara, who composes and sings songs in her native Bambara language, told IANS in an interview here.
Before every performance, Fatou, as she is popularly known, briefly explains the message she wants to convey.
“I like India. I love Indian Bollywood movies and musicals. We feel very close to India,” said the 32-year-old, who is impressed the way Indian women dress themselves.
Travelling the world for the last 13 years, she believes countries where women enjoy equal status in society have developed fast.

“I think women are complementary of men. The world will be a better place to live when women enjoy their rights. In countries like France, America and Germany, women are in their right place and are supported by husbands and families. It’s incredible,” she said.

Her thoughts come from her own tumultuous story. At the age of 12, she became a member of her father’s dance troupe to perform didadi dance from Wassoulou, her ancestral home in western Mali. When she refused to go to school, her parents sent her to live with and be disciplined by an aunt in Bamako, the Malian capital.

She used to look after her actress aunt’s child on film sets. A director gave her one line part in the final scene of the film “Taafe Fangan” (‘The power of women’) and there was no looking back after that. She played the lead in 1999 film “La Gense” (Genesis). In “Sia, The Dream of the Python”, she played Sia, a legendary West African girl who defies tradition.

She then came to be identified as Sia not just in Mali but also in Guinea, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Fatou’s family wanted her to settle down and marry and even forced her to announce, live on Malian television, that she was abandoning her career as an actress.

“My parents were scared but this doesn’t happen just in Africa. They prefer you to be a doctor or something else. I knew it (music) was my way. It was the only thing I wanted to do. I fought for it,” she recalled.

She ran away to Paris in 2002 when the director of a renowned French theatre company travelled to Bamako to offer her a part in his new production.

She performed a variety of roles around the world and later took to singing solo in the company’s performances. Encouraged by the response, she began to sing in Parisian clubs and cafes during breaks from touring.

She took up the acoustic guitar on the advice of a friend. “To me, it was a wonderful and daring thing: a Malian girl with an acoustic guitar. Why should the guitar be only for men?”

Disowned by the family and community, she was called “different”. “It’s nice to be different. We are like flowers of God – flowers of different colours. It’s beautiful to be different,” she said.

“My aim is to share love and melody. By travelling, I realized I can unite the world. People forget everything like who they are and where they are and music takes its place. As a singer you suddenly become the power.”

Today as the family has accepted her back, she sometimes performs in her country. “We had a couple of problems with extremists for few years. It changed our story a lot. They banned music for one year and that time I could not sing.”

She wants society to change its attitude towards women. “Our generation is not our parents’ generation. I am a woman. I have a different way to think of things. Men think for today like how to give food to family today but women think for 20-30 years. They think what will happen to their children.”