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Saturday February 08, 2014

The Lexington Herald Leader

Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara uses her songs to send ‘a mighty message’
By: Walter Tunis

Fatoumata Diawara joked by phone that she was “born old.”

On the surface, the claim might seem preposterous. After all, the Malian singer is only 31. But she has fit a considerable amount of living into those years through a career that led her from acting to activism.

Her work in the 2001 film Sia, le rêve du python (Sia, The Dream of the Python) made the Ivory Coast native a star in Mali at age 18. Then came music built around the traditional melodies of her homeland, which came to serve as a voice for the rights of women and children at a time when much of northern Mali fell into war.

“I became very popular in my country through the cinema before I started to write songs,” said Diawara, who performs Thursday as part of the Norton Center for the Arts’ Club Weisiger series in Danville. “I’m going to be 32 very soon but I feel like I’m very old because everybody knows me — the generation before me and the generation today and even the future generation. Sia became one of the most famous, most popular movies in my country. That you can touch several generations and have them still know the story is so good. The only thing is I feel like I’ve never been a child in my life. That’s strange.”

What was never strange to Diawara was music. Acting brought her into public view initially, but what was prevalent all around her as a child in the rhythmically fertile regions of Mali was singing.

“In Mali, music is something very natural,” she said. “When we woke up every day, the first thing we did to express ourselves was by singing. When we walked, everybody sang. Well, the men don’t sing a lot. They were mostly musicians. They played instruments. The women in the family would sing. So for years, I grew up with this tradition with my parents in Mali.

“Today, I try to adapt that singing to the modern styles and try to touch more people in the world. I keep the traditional singing, but I’m trying to use modern instruments to make more people like this music that talks to people so very directly.”

On her 2011 album Fatou, that music regularly speaks of human dignity and resolve, especially when it comes to Africa’s women and children. On Alama, Fatou sings about being branded a witch and a whore as she calls for justice through tolerance for the families and orphans of Mali. Boloko speaks directly to the physical mutilations and circumcisions endured by African women.

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