While touring the world, Malian singer and songwriter Fatoumata Diawara sings in Bambara, her native language. With an acoustic guitar, she takes her audiences into the world of extraordinary musical oscillations while singing Boloko (on female genital mutilation) and Peace. The idiom is unadorned but the effect is powerful. I beg you mother, don’t make them circumcise me, it hurts so much, she sings. “Being a woman in Mali is hard. My music is a way to make the voices and problems of the Malian people heard, especially of women,” says 37-year-old Diawara, who performed at Blackberry Sharp Nights, at Blue Frog, on Thursday.
Diawara grew up listening to Wassoulou music, an antecedent of American Blues. “If you are a woman in Mali, you don’t sing on stage. To me, taking up the guitar was a wonderful and daring thing. Why should the guitar be only for men?” says Diawara, who, in her broken English, takes us back to her childhood in Cote d’Ivoire, where a stubborn 12-year-old refused to go to school and was sent to live with her aunt. She became an actor and found the lead role in Cheick Omar Sissoko’s 1999 film La Genèse. But her family was not too pleased and wanted her to “marry and settle”. They even forced her to announce on national television that she was giving up being an actor. But Diawara ran away to Paris. Her parents and community may have disowned her after that but once there, Diawara was singing of her community, the problems in Mali, in turn seeking help from the world. “These were still my people and solutions needed to be found. They respect me now. Some of them even look up to me in a country where it is extremely difficult to be an artiste. They even think of me as someone else, which I’m fine with,” says Diawara.
It was almost 10 years ago that desert blues invaded the western stage and markets, finding ample appreciation from critics and masses alike. And Diawara was at the helm of things. But what caught attention was her song Mali-ke (Peace for Mali) in which she collaborated with 13 Malian artistes during the ban on music in her countryby Islamic groups. “It’s a place like India, where music is ingrained in our soul. No one had the right to deny us that,” says Diawara.