When she dials in from her home-base in Bamako it is already afternoon. Fatoumata Diawara is dressed in colorful traditional kaftan and wearing her trademark eye makeup. The tiredness of her touring lifestyle weighs on her voice as she speaks, but when talking about her music there is an undeniable spark to her tone. “I got involved in the project about two years ago”, she says about Mali Magic. “To me it was important to be involved as a female songwriting. Most of the time those kinds of big projects belong to the men”. Amongst a wide range of artists across disciplines, Fatoumata’s Maliba shines as a more stripped back and an acoustic version of the electric guitar driven work we are used to from the singer.
“The way I composed the songs, they are simple and natural and based on guitar and voice. Everything is real. That was important to me because in our day music has become less organic and more electronic and poppy. It is very good for the spirit to listen to music that is not overproduced.”
Where Time Moves Differently
In the process of making the EP, the singer paused her tour for just one week to come back to Bamako, Mali’s capital to record all the songs in the short period of time. “The inspiration comes very fast when I am in my country”, Fatoumata says. “I have access to all the instruments here. On tour I just have the voice and the guitar, but I prefer recording at home where I can express myself. There is no time. Time moves differently here. It is more relaxing”.
That relaxing energy can also be felt in the gentle melodic processions of Kalan. The layered vocals of the singer in her mother tongue Bambara are picked up, reflected, and guided by the instrumentation in perfect balance. Yakandi is titled after the traditional rhythm of Mali’s Wassoulou region and embodies tradition as well as contemporary influences. About being part of Mali Magic Fatoumata says:
“This project means a lot to me. To be involved in the protection of the Timbuktu Manuscripts is a huge honor. Conditions for men and women in Mali are very different, and for a woman to be involved in this cultural preservation is very important. It is unbelievable to be a part of it and it feels like a dream. I’m so proud and so happy.I’m very in touch with my ancestral past. Many of the visuals and ideas I use come to me in my dreams, dreams about my ancestors. To be given a chance to help protect our ancestral and cultural legacy is so special to me.”
The Ongoing Fight
To Fatoumata Diawara it was especially important to be part of the Mali Magic project not just as a female singer but as a female songwriter. “Female artists are still fighting”, she notices about the local music scene – a statement which holds true to certain extents everywhere on the globe.
“Female artists are fighting to exist. For sure we have a lot of female musicians in Mali but most of the time the projects and their music belong to men – husbands, producer, management. Musically we are not always free. I hope in the future there will be more female artists who can express themselves freely and compose instead of just singing.”
In Mali’s vibrant scene, it is the names of the singers that stand out the most – Fatoumata Diawara, Rokia Traoré, Oumou Sangaré are a few of the big names that come to mind. Faced with a communal struggle in the music industry, the female artists have developed close ties. “There is a lot of support”, Fatoumata adds. Especially when thinking of the international community, this support is something that can be felt. But this is a connection limited to those artists who are able to travel.
Fatoumata Diawara has been around the world with her music, but Maliba is certainly an EP of returning. It is a return to the roots, to the organic way of songwriting, and to the tradition of Malian music. With powerful singers like Fatoumata at the forefront, she has witnessed some changes in the tradition as well. “I can see more girls and women trying to compose. That is new. It is a beginning”.
Maliba is a message of encouragement directed at all the women in Mali but also at the international community. The titles of the songs are consciously in English even though the lyrics are almost exclusively in Bambara, so that even non-Bambara speakers can get an idea of the topic. “I feel a different energy when I sing in my native language”, Fatoumata says.
Mother and Role Model
Over the course of her career the musician kept the ties to her home country. At age 18 she left Mali for France and started working as a musician in Paris. Fatoumata Diawara holds herself with the power of an artist who has made her way through whatever struggles life threw at her. She tells me about preconceptions and imposed ideas that people had for what she and her music should sound like – in Paris as well as in Bamako. “If you don’t play an instrument and can’t compose yourself it is very hard to express things that you have in your mind”, say the artist whose first instrument was the voice – followed by the guitar.
“Being a woman also made it more difficult. I am a leader, but I had only male musicians in front of me. Sometimes they did not accept me to tell them what I wanted.”
There are still a lot of preconceptions and conventions to be broken within the music industry everywhere. But the participation of musicians like Fatoumata Diawara in the Mali Magic project and her international acclaim has paved the way for young female artists to pick up the guitar. She also explains that her role at the forefront of the female musicians in Mali has given her a great responsibility to precede with good example and to release music consciously.
“Through my music I can consider myself a mother for the young female generation. They need a role model. It is not just singing, but also how you live, how you respect yourself and how you dress.”
Fatoumata Diawara took on this responsibility of the maternal musical figure with grace. After becoming a mother, herself while working as a full-time musician, she tells me that she can hear her children everywhere. “I am more peaceful now that I am a mother myself”, she laughs. The musical mother of contemporary Malian music is very aware of the position she inhabits – culturally, politically, and socially. Motherhood and mother figures are also reflected on Maliba – a musical return to the motherland. “Mother means everything to be. The mother is the root of love, and it is where you come from. Your mother is your first home. Mothers are everything and they deserve all the respect”. In her role as a cultural icon, Fatoumata achieves the impressive double role of being a private and a public person and mother at the same time.
After the work on the Maliba EP, which also features several collaborations with other Mali-based artists, Fatoumata is about to go back on tour in the autumn. She will take the unique compositions made on the soil of her home in Bamako on the road with her and spread the important Mali Magic project. Her music brings to life the ancient, more recent, and contemporary tradition, art, and history of Mali in a versatile way. “I like bringing my audience something they don’t know about. It is about teaching people who you are and where you come from”. And Maliba is a work of music that has come from the very core of Fatoumata Diawara.
Following our interview with Fatoumata Diawara we updated our Feminist Voices playlist with some highlights from Mali’s music scene.