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Baker's Dozen

Heal Your Soul: Fatoumata Diawara's Favourite Music
Adam Quarshie , April 29th, 2020 09:09

Acclaimed Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara talks Adam Quarshie through her favourite records, explaining the influence of powerful female vocalists from both the United States and from Mali's Wassoulou region.

"On most of the songs, you'll realise there are more female voices than male voices", Fatoumata Diawara tells me, before delving into a list of her favourite records. She's on the phone from Nantes, in Western France, sheltering with her family against the surreal backdrop of the country's lockdown to withstand the coronavirus pandemic. Powerful female voices have always guided the singer and musician, both during her childhood in Mali and in her early adult life in Paris, where she first tried to forge an independent identity as an artist. "It's still very difficult for a lot of female artists to grow their own project." She says. "The problem I had was the fact that I was a woman and I didn't want any men to drive my music. I wanted to experiment by myself".

Diawara found a refuge in Paris after fleeing from family pressures back home in Bamako, when she was 19. She started out playing at jam nights in bars around the city, but constantly found herself being compared to other female musicians, or being told what to do and how to play by the men she came into contact with. "They were telling me to be Tracy Chapman because I have this heavy voice. I told them: she's unique - there can't be two Tracy Chapmans in this world. Not everybody could understand. But in the end, if you stay focused on who you are, they'll understand you later."

That sense of determination to forge her own path means she's now a massive star, enjoying success both in Mali - whose rich and inventive music industry consistently produces some of the most internationally well-known musicians in Africa - as well as in Europe. While many of her songs are warm and upbeat, they often contain a social message, such as commentary on the continued insurgency in Northern Mali. This is a tendency she inherited from the singers she grew up listening to from the Wassoulou tradition. The Wassoulou region - covering the area where southern Mali, northern Côte D'Ivoire and eastern Guinea meet - has produced a long line of mostly female singers including Coumba Sidibé and Nâ Hawa Doumbia, whose popular songs speak of everyday concerns such as marriage, children and money worries.

But though she was raised primarily on Malian music, her musical education also came via the voices of Nina Simone, Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Later, the neo-Soul of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott broadened her outlook even further, altering the way she approaches songwriting. As a result, Diawara has collaborated with a number of other musicians in recent years, including long-time friend Damon Albarn, who has included her on both his Africa Express and Gorillaz projects.

The Gorillaz single 'Désolé', featuring Fatoumata Diawara is out now. Click the image of Fatoumata below to begin reading the Baker's Dozen selection