Interview: Fatoumata Diawara

Fatoumata Diawara

Some artists are a Jack of many trades, but clearly excel at one.  In comparison, charismatic and versatile talent like Fatoumata Diawara, who at 28-years-old has already had wildly successful careers as a dancer and actress, and who is a rising star in African music is the kind of sparkling phenomenon that is enviable, if not nearly completely unheard of. 
Creating her own unique fusion of contemporary folk inspired by Wassoulou tradition, jass and blues, the singer-songwriter makes her Dayton debut on Thursday September 20 at the University of Dayton’s Boll Theatre in a performance sponsored by Dayton’s CityFolk organization.
Diawara’s EP Kanou was released by World Circuit Records in the U.K. and Europe last spring and by Nonesuch Records in North America that fall. Following the release Diawara performed as part of Damon Albarn’s album and live project Rocket Juice and the Moon, which featured himself, Tony Allen, and Flea.
World Circuit released her debut album, Fatou, in Europe and the U.K. in the fall of 2011 to critical acclaim; Nonesuch released the album in North America on August 28.  Though Diawara has toured extensively, selling out venues across Europe, Canada, and Australia, her first U.S. tour takes place this fall. 
Ghettoblaster caught up with Diawara to ask her about her career, touring and Mr. Albarn.  Here is what she shared with us…
While you’ve dedicated yourself recently to music, you’ve also had careers in acting and dance.  Were those labors of love for you?
Yes! I loved them. That is for sure. There wasn’t a lot of money involved but acting and dancing allowed me to travel and see so many cultures. It was a huge ‘education’ for me. I am glad I made this investment…
How difficult was it for you to decide to leave your family for France in 2002?
It was difficult of course. But I knew I had to do it. It was a case of now or never. And this thought gave me courage and  strength.
Had you not really explored your voice as a singer before then?
I have always enjoyed singing. From a very, very early age. But when I was a kid I sang just to myself; when I was feeling unhappy I would sing to comfort myself. It was a medicine.
And you taught yourself guitar too, correct?  Did you teach yourself percussion and bass too?
I did teach myself guitar, yes. I was supposed to be playing a concert and my usual guitarist wasn’t able to play, so I realized I had to teach myself. Very quickly!
Who do you believe your contemporaries to be?  Who are the artists making music that you really wish you’d written?
Wow that’s a big question! I don’t really see music like that, however much I like other people’s music I never wish I’d written it, as it wouldn’t resonate with me in the same way. To try and be a bit more helpful though (!) I was on the same bill as Bjork recently and I thought she was incredible.
Was it challenging to begin writing your own compositions, or did your prior experience being directed as a perform enable you with skillsets that made it easy to begin writing your own material?
No I don’t think so. My head is full of compositions, they come to me all the time. I think being surrounded by music fills you with it. I also think my heritage and ancestors gives me inspiration. Many of my compositions have been inspired by the music and culture of the Wassoulou region, where I am from. You can hear it in my tunings on my guitar, they have been transposed from traditional instruments, like the kamel ngoni.
How rewarding has it been that your EP was so well-received by critics? 
It gave me huge encouragement and courage for my first release to be received well.
What are your personal measures or benchmarks for success?
If my music continues to lift people’s spirits and make them happy, then so am I.
You have collaborated a handful of times with Damon Albarn – on Africa Express and Rocket Juice and the Moon.  How did that collaborative relationship begin?  Has he offered mentoring that has allowed you to grow as a musician?
I’ve met Damon several times through Africa Express, who my record label World Circuit Records is closely associated with. He was co-producing Bobby Womack’s album ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ with XL’s Richard Russell and he asked me to feature on it. The as you say there was Rocket Juice and the Moon. I’m actually on tour with Damon right now on the Africa Express Train (we’ve hired a train with many many other western and African musicians which is touring the UK – it’s so much fun). Damon is a wonderful man who gives a lot. He is very generous musically.
I know you’ve toured in Europe, Canada and Australia in the past, but have you been to the U.S. before on tour?
No! This will be the first time I tour with my band in the US.
What do you have planned for the program you’ll perform in Dayton?  Will you be performing your own music exclusively, or will you include pieces from your collaborations or the material of influences and inspirations?
It will all be songs from my album and from my EP. I might play some new songs but we’ll see!