Since the release of Fatou, her solo album back in 2011, Fatoumata Diawara has been rather busy as one of the most celebrated voices in African music today. But the Ivorian-born singer, gigging nonstop and gracing world music lovers with a soulful blend of Wassoulou folk and spiritually-infused Afropop, can finally breathe and let things sink in, two Grammy nominations later.
Redefining her musical sense of self is a part of the personal journey, collaborating with an eclectic mix of artists like Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Damon Albarn (Blur + Gorillaz), Herbie Hancock and Ethiopian jazz great, Mulatu Astatke. Her second solo album, Fenfo—released this year to critical acclaim—translates into ‘Something to Say’ in Bambara, a fitting title as she doesn’t hold back on what touches her soul the most—migration, African identity, the struggle of African women. We had the opportunity to interview her for International Women’s Day coming up March 8th, coinciding with much Grammy praise for Fenfo in the Best World Music Album category and for “Ultimatum” in the Best Dance Recording category.
Marius: Congratulations on your nominations in the 61st Grammys. Many people feel the Best World Music Album category puts all the non-Western artists into the same group? How do you feel about this??
Fatoumata: Thank you very much. Well, I can only speak for myself and it felt great to be nominated. It has been a great experience and a lot of exposure for myself, an African woman. Even if I did not win I was happy to be on stage and to perform on the pre-telecast. I have been waiting for this opportunity all my life, so I am very proud of that and very happy for the rest of the nominees and winners.
Marius: As we’ve seen from the Grammys, you’ve gone electric – like Bob Dylan back in 1965 – but like Dylan, you’re not getting much criticism for breaking from tradition. What has prompted you to pick up the electric guitar?
Fatoumata: The electric guitar is my soul mate and I learned to play by practicing on my own. There aren’t many African women that play the electric guitar so I wanted to be the one. There was a lot of positive feedback on social media about the way I played at the Grammys and about the new way to see Africa, as I have been the first African women to do a solo with an electric guitar at the Grammys. This has not happened before so it was very positive. It was not an easy decision to play it and also do a solo (you have to know your instrument very well) and I had fears but I said to myself ‘I have to do it, I have a message to send.’
Marius: Fatou was such a huge success that landed you on the world stage. What is the difference between performing for large international crowds to small and intimate gatherings in Bamako?
Fatoumata: I have toured in many countries and performed on different stages and at the end – it’s all the same for me. The stage is one of my favorite places and playing is like healing myself, the way I can introduce myself to more people who can discover my project so it does not really matter if it’s a large or intimate gathering. All are important to me.
Marius: Your albums are very personal and you often sing about the struggles of African women. What are some of the issues you sing about and why are they important to you?
Fatoumata: My main message is ‘hope’. All is about the world, peace, how Africa can be a better place, especially for women, because I am one and I am a survivor and I have been doing everything to be where I am today so I want to encourage those who have lost hope.
Marius: You mentioned in a past interview that you wanted to be completely free to do what you wanted with your music. Does this mean that you had no freedom before in the recording process? Have you achieved this sense of freedom with Fenfo?
Fatoumata: Absolutely! I have been totally free, all songs have been composed by me and I co-produced the album but indeed I was also open to suggestions that´s why I worked with Matthieu Chedid and Pierre Juarez who added their personal color to my record and I loved it.
Marius: If you weren’t songwriting, singing, acting – what would you be doing? Why?
Fatoumata: I don’t know. I cannot think if I’d be doing anything else. What I do comes directly from my soul. I have been born to sing, play and act and I am very grateful that I can do this for a living.
Marius: What is some advice that present Fatoumata would give to past Fatoumata about starting off in the music business? What advice, in general, would you give women starting off in the music industry?
Fatoumata: Trust yourself, be yourself and do not rush. What is meant for you will come. Never stop learning and improving yourself and listen to yourselves before making fast decisions. All is inside of you.What is music to your ears?