Fatoumata Diawara is a striking presence on stage. A year ago at the Grammy Awards, adorned in a bright yellow headwrap, a mass of brightly colored necklaces and bracelets and a red electric guitar, she became the first artist from the African nation of Mali to perform at the ceremony.
It was Diawara’s rendition of “Negue Negue,” from her Grammy-nominated album “Fenfo,” that instantly swept up the audience into her brand of Malian music, a soulful blend of Wassoulou folk music and spiritually infused Afropop.
“It was unbelievable and a great honor to perform as an African woman,” Diawara says, in a phone conversation from her home in Italy. “For me it was even more important than the nominations. It was important for young people in Mali to see a female artist up there.”
In the past few decades, modern Malian music has exploded around the world thanks to artists such as Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Tinariwen, Habib Koite and Rokia Traore. Diawara is proud to be now listed among these names.
“In Mali music is everywhere,” says Diawara. “We listen to music all the time and everybody can sing. Music is crucial to our life.”
Since her debut album, 2011’s “Fatou,” Diawara has been on a never-ending tour while also working on different projects and collaborations with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers). During this time she also amassed a collection of new songs, 11 of which are found on “Fenfo.”
Diawara represents modern African music in the best way. With memorable melodies and lyrics, she sings mostly in Bambara, the national language of Mali, and touches on topics of migration, African identity, the struggle of African women, motherhood and how to build a better world for children.
In the songs on “Fenfo,” which translates into “something to say,” the lilting, electric guitar-laden melodies are a perfect match for her stunning vocals, from the slow-burning blues of “Kokoro” and the simmering funk of “Negue Negue” to the Afro-pop of “Ou Y’an Ye,” the stand-up rock of “Bonya,” and the lovely lullaby “Mama.”
For Diawara, the most important part of the songwriting process is creating a melody that makes the song universal.
“The first thing for me is to have a simple melody which can connect to children, to older people, to any generation,” Diawara says. “If the melody is quite beautiful, I really appreciate the song no matter what language it is in.”
Also known as an accomplished guitarist, Diawara is one of the few women to master the unique desert blues sound of Malian music, a blend of traditional melodies and American blues. Becoming proficient on guitar, especially the electric version, was a necessity, she says.
Early on, her many backup guitarists would often claim at the last minute that they couldn’t do a show (“they would find a show paying more money”) which put Diawara in a problematic situation as she tried to grow her career. She now calls the electric guitar her “soul mate.”
“I realized if I really wanted to do this, I had to learn an instrument,” she says. “I realized after the piano the guitar is very easy to compose with. Now that I play the guitar, I am also more involved; I am making solos, doing more arrangements, being more involved in the music.”
Born in Ivory Coast in 1982, Diawara grew up in the Malian capital Bamako, where as a teenager she made a name for herself as a film actor, something she continues to do including a role in the 2014 Oscar-nominated film “Timbuktu.” In between films, a young Diawara began writing songs inspired by her own personal reflections, and it’s music that continues to inspire her: “I do like acting but music is more me. It’s the way I communicate with the world.”
On “Fenfo,” Diawara plays with modern instrumentation; her guitar melds with traditional instruments like the kora, kamale ngoni (both string instruments) and African drums with a modern sensibility that she feels allows her to connect with audiences in Africa as well as around the world.
Today, Diawara spends time in Italy, Mali and Paris — when she’s not on the road, that is, which is a good amount of time. It’s time well spent, and she claims it’s been a learning experience.
“Through touring I realized my music should be wide, keeping the traditional but opening my mind to the rest of the world because my audience is American, it’s English, it’s African, it’s the world. So it becomes just about the music. You have to be better every day, every performance. I love that challenge.”