Modern African Singer Fatoumata Diawara Plays Her First-Ever Cleveland Concert

Modern African singer and dancer Fatoumata Diawara says the negativity in the world at the moment makes her think of her current tour as an antidote to the bad news we hear every day.

“At this time, people are a little depressed because of all the information in the world, but after the show, they’re like, ‘Wow,’” says an exuberant Diawara via phone from a tour stop in Italy. She makes her first-ever appearance in Cleveland at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “I’m happy because this is how I see the music. It’s supposed to make people happy, and it’s working now. People talk about my smiling. It’s something totally natural to me. I smile and welcome [my audience] because you are you, and I am me, and we are one. [My approach] just says, ‘I love you guys.’”

Born on the Ivory Coast, Diawara grew up in Mali and began to absorb the country’s musical traditions at an early age.

“The culture of Mali is totally different to the Ivory Coast culture,” she explains. “It’s super-diverse and very spiritual. We are still connected to our traditional instruments, and we respect them. I’m very proud of that. That’s what I bring to my show. It’s like when you listen to the sitar, and it takes you to some place you have never been. You know it comes from somewhere you don’t know about it. It makes you curious, so you want to know more about it.”

Originally, Diawara wanted to act and moved to France to try to find movie roles. That turned out to be a good decision, and she got a part in the 1999 feature film Genesis and in the musical Kirikou et Karaba.

“I continue to be an actress. I really love it,” she says. “But music is really me. It’s my opinion about the world and what’s going on. It’s about my generation and about my feeling about women. It’s really personal. I love acting because you can transport yourself to be somebody else. You can be crazy, and you can smoke and do stuff you don’t normally do in normal life, and I love that too.”

Diawara started putting out records in 2011, and she says the transition from collaborating with other artists to making her own album was a seamless one.

“Before I made my first record, I had collaborated with people before that,” she says. “I was doing a lot of collaboration with a lot of people. I was feeling good, and it was natural and normal [to go into the studio]. It’s a language to speak in music.”

For her latest album, 2018’s Fenfo (Something to Say), she expands her musical range. Bass- and drum-driven grooves propel songs such as “Kokoro” and “Ou Y’an Ye,” and Diawara capably adopts a somber tone for ballads such as “Mama” and “Takamba.”

“I’m very open with the music,” says Diawara. “My collaborations weren’t just Mali collaborations. I played with other artists. I played with jazz musicians. I try to bring all those experiences to my music — jazz, folk and reggae. I’m experimenting with all these styles. I just trying to adapt each record and the spirit of the music to nowadays. Music is going this way. It’s something totally natural.”

Because she was on the road for such long stretches, Diawara recorded the album at many different studios.

“I was on tour when I was recording,” she says. “I really like being on stage. It’s one of my favorite things. So when I had an inspiration, I would say to my manager, ‘Let’s go now.’ We were looking for places before the soundcheck to see where I could go to record. It was like a pregnancy. I would tell him, ‘Now, now.’ When I ask him to go, he knows we have to go.”

With the album’s opening song “Nterini,” a track that features a bluesy electric guitar riff, Diawara makes a statement about the global migrant crisis.

“It means ‘My Friend,’” she says of the track. “It’s about how we can try to respect all these people who are traveling from the boats. I want people to know that you weren’t born a migrant. You become a migrant, and it’s people who make them a migrant. They should not lose their dignity because of this. They deserve something more than this. We drink coffee, and we have families who love us. People should know this. The song is about how to respect migrant people. It’s important. Behind this, there is a lot of love and people can feel that. I want to speak to love and nothing else. Just peace and love.”

While it still features traditional instrumentation, the punchy “Bonya” comes across as a significant departure on the album.

“It’s a pop song,” she explains. “When my manager listened to this, he asked, ‘Where did you get this? It’s so different. Did you transport yourself?’ My songs are so different, but it comes naturally. Music is music. There is no boundary and no nationality. It’s just one family. You respect me, and I’ll respect you. The song is about how to respect each other. I’m a human being. Let’s stop making each other suffer for nothing. We should not suffer for nothing.”

Diawara continues to collaborate with musicians outside of the African music scene. “Ultimatum,” a song she did with the electronic dance music act Disclosure, shows her range.

“They are big friends of mine,” she says. “They listened to my music and called me to make a collaboration with them. How could I say no? I love those guys. It was my pleasure. This summer, we want to do some shows together.”

For the live show, Diawara performs with a backing band that she refers to as “family.”

“We spend a lot of time together,” she says. “ We love each other. We are super excited to go on tour. They are my second family. We play with a lot of energy because I like dancing. It’s one my passions. We play and I just dance and sing.”

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