Fatou, before you started playing music, you already made a name for yourself in the African movie scene. Is your life as an actress in the past now?
Fatoumata Diawara: "The last film I starred in was "Il Pleut Sur Conakry" which dates from 2007; funnily enough in that movie I already played the role of a young singer, and with the same director (Cheikh Fantamady Camara, red.) I'm now involved in a new project for which we already shot some scenes in Senegal and we're scheduled to do more filming in France and Guinea. I haven't really left the movie business as such, but it's not where my heart is. When I have to play a role I will give it my all, but at the end of the day you're still reciting a text someone else has written. I write the lyrics for my songs myself, so they are much more a reflection of my personal outlook on life. However, because there are not that many African films produced each year, I can keep doing my work as an actress on the side."
Does being an actress in Africa guarantee stardom as it does in Hollywood?
Fatoumata Diawara: "I starred in "Sia, Le Rêve Du Python", a film by Dani Kouyate that was hugely popular in West-Africa. Because I played the lead role of Sia in that movie, a lot of people still address me by that name today. It's only now that people in Mali are starting to call me by my real name. Because I was so well-known, I didn't have to participate in casting sessions after a while, but when I arrived in France, I more or less had to start from zero again and since I didn't feel like proving myself all over again, I decided to focus all my energy on my music."
Funnily enough, your own biography reads as a film script as well.
Fatoumata Diawara: "(laughs) I already entertained the thought of writing a book on my life, but every time I'm getting ready to do so, I start crying again, so I guess I'm just not ready yet. Maybe trying to process my experiences in my songs will help me heal again. When I finally succeed in putting my story to paper, I have no doubt it will make an interesting film script as well, because even though I'm only a twenty-nine year old girl, sometimes I feel like I've already lived the life of someone of fifty."
At one point you joined the French theatre group Royal de Luxe, well-known in Belgium for the big spectacles they perform each summer in Antwerp.
Fatoumata Diawara: "Yeah, I'm very familiar with the city of Antwerp, because as you say we performed there almost every summer. It all started when Royal de Luxe was asked to create a spectacle ("Petits Contes Nègres", red.) that was to symbolize a meeting of African and European culture. They came to Africa to do different castings in order to find the performers they needed for the show and when they arrived in Mali, people immediately pointed them in my direction. Unfortunately at that time I'd just declared on national television, I was leaving the movie business, but I was so flattered being asked by a reputed theater company like Royal de Luxe, that I decided to accept anyway. When my parents subsequently forbade me to go on tour with them, I decided to flee the country and that's how I ended up in France. I stayed with Royal de Luxe for six years and in that time we travelled the four corners of the earth. It's because of the life-changing decision I made that day, that I'm here talking to you today. If I would have stayed in Mali, I probably would have been married of to one or the other cousin of mine and would already have five children circling around me! (laughs)"
It was Jean-Luc Courcoult, founder and managing director of Royal de Luxe, who heard you singing backstage one day and told you to consider a career in music; a pivotal moment in your life?
Fatoumata Diawara: "Well, I wouldn't call it a life-changing moment, but before that moment, my voice was something I treasured for myself; convincing myself there was no need to share it with the rest of the world. My way of seeing things really changed when I started touring with Royal de Luxe and noticed I could touch people with my voice, regardless of the fact they could understand what I was singing or not. It made me realize that singing was the best way I could hope to express myself."
One of the first steps you took on your musical path was doing backing vocals for Oumou Sangare, Malian music legend and also the one who gave you a supporting shoulder in getting a record deal with World Circuit.
Fatoumata Diawara: "My very first steps in the music arena were a few concerts I did in a couple of clubs and bars in Paris together with a guitar player called Abdoulaye Traore. Not much later I met Cheick Tidiane Seck, who in turn introduced me to Deedee Bridgewater and Oumou Sangare. I have the utmost respect for Oumou, because she's part of that little group of people who saw some potential in me from the very beginning. I was only twenty-five years old when I met her for the first time and I probably don't have to tell you, being a young singer myself, meeting a legend like that left a big impression. She helped me believe in myself and set me on the path I had to follow. Oumou has really been like a mother to me. We also shouldn't forget she has played a pioneering role in spreading Wassoulou culture. We were born in the same village and I can tell you she definitely opened some doors for me."
Listening to you debut album; it wasn't Oumou's name that first sprung to mind, though, but that of Rokia Traore.
Fatoumata Diawara: "Rokia is a good friend of mine and one of the first female musicians from Mali to play the guitar. My own relationship with the guitar started when I was confronted with the difficulty of finding good musicians in Paris. Not being someone who wants to depend on others, I decided I had to find an instrument I could accompany myself on on stage. First I wanted to opt for the kamelengoni, but because they're still handmade it's difficult to replace or even repair them when they get broken. In the end, the most logical and simplest solution was the guitar."
I just compared you to Rokia Traore, but who would you cite as your sources of inspiration?
Fatoumata Diawara: "It might surprise you, but I'm not necessarily influenced by African artists. In Paris I often frequent neo soul and jazz events and I listen to people like Nina Simone, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Sara Tavares and Cesaria Evora. I do my best to incorporate these influences in my own music as well, but of course I can't hide the Malian traditions I inherited."
Your debut album, 'Fatou', is released by the renowned World Circuit label. Doesn't that put a lot of pressure on a young artiste like yourself?
Fatoumata Diawara: "(laughs) Strangely enough, it doesn't. To me it's rather been an interesting experience to be able to record for a reputable label like World Circuit. I just knew I had to do something with my voice and if it wouldn't have been for World Circuit, I'm sure I would have found another label to work with. I love the fact I find myself surrounded by artists like Buena Vista Social Club, Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare and Toumani Diabate now. The fact a label like World Circuit even wanted to work with a young artiste like myself is flattering to say the least."
You write your songs in Bambara. Doesn't it bother you when people don't understand what you are going on about?
Fatoumata Diawara: "My lyrics are very personal in nature; sometimes they're even very nearly factual and at this stage in my career, I don't really feel I want to conquer people with what I'm saying yet. I'd rather capture their imagination with the melodies I play. Whenever I start on a new song, I always start by searching a fitting melody first. It's only afterwards that I will add a lyric, often based on my own experiences in life, my opinions about something or what life's like for a young African woman. I don't mind sharing all that with my audience, but I don't want people to rack their brains over what I'm going on about either."