Good medicine

Good medicine

Fatoumata Diawara brings comforting compositions to Dayton

By Tim Anderl

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, jazz and blues, the singer-songwriter makes her Dayton debut on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the University of Dayton’s Boll Theatre in a performance sponsored by Dayton’s CityFolk organization.

Diawara was born of Malian parents in the Ivory Coast in 1982. As a child she became a member of her father’s dance troupe and was a popular performer of didadi dance from Wassoulou, her ancestral home in western Mali. Her parents sent her to live with an aunt who was an actress, and she was discovered on the set of one of her aunt’s films by the director who was captivated by Diawara’s adolescent beauty.

At the age of 18, Diawara travelled to Paris to perform the role of Antigone on stage.  Offers for further acting roles poured in but Diawara’s family wanted her to settle down and marry.  But, in 2002, Jean-Louis Courcoult, the director of the renowned French theatre company, Royale de Luxe, travelled to Bamako to offer Diawara a part in his new production. After much soul-searching, Diawara decided to run away and board a plane for Paris.

“It was difficult, of course,” Diawara said. “But I knew I had to do it. It was a case of now or never. And this thought gave me courage and strength.”

While rehearsing with Royal de Luxe, Diawara took to singing backstage for her own amusement.  Encouragement from the director to sing during the company’s performances launched her career as a musician on the Parisian nightclub circuit.

“I had always enjoyed singing from a very, very early age,” Diawara said. “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.”

In Paris, she met Cheikh Tidiane Seck who invited her to travel with him back to Mali to work on two projects as chorus vocalist; Seya, the Grammy-nominated album by Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, and Red Earth, the Grammy-winning Malian project by American jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.  On her return to France, Diawara bought a guitar and started to teach herself and to write down her own compositions.

“My head is full of compositions, they come to me all the time,” she said. “I think being surrounded by music fills you with it. I also think my heritage and ancestors give 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.”

She quickly worked to complete an album’s worth of songs and started recording demos for which she composed and arranged all of the tracks.  Between recording sessions for her own debut, she found time to collaborate on Damon Albarn’s Africa Express and contribute vocals to albums by Cheikh Lô, AfroCubism, Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou and Herbie Hancock’s Grammy-winning Imagine Project.

Diawara’s EP Kanou was released by World Circuit Records in the U.K. and Europe in the spring of 2011 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.

“I’ve met Damon several times through Africa Express. 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,” Diawara said.  “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 U.K.  It’s so much fun.”

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 Aug. 28. Though Diawara has toured extensively, selling out venues across Europe, Canada and Australia, her first U.S. tour takes place this fall.  During her stop in Dayton, Diawara plans to play songs from her album and EP.

“I might play some new songs, but we’ll see,” she said. “Acting and dancing allowed me to travel and see so many cultures. It was a huge ‘education’ for me. But right now, I am glad I made this investment.”

University of Dayton Arts Series and Cityfolk present Fatoumata Diawara on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Kennedy Union Boll Theatre on the University of Dayton campus, 300 College Park Dr.  General admission tickets are $20, seniors, military, faculty and staff $18 and students $10. For more information visit cityfolk.org or call (937) 496-3863.  

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@daytoncitypaper.com

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