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French-Malian actress forges new identity in world music

At just 32, Fatoumata (she prefers “Fatou”) already has an accomplished acting career in film and theater. Today she’s forging a new musical identity with great fanfare in Europe, Africa and now North America. Photo Courtesy/Forklore Productions
Fatoumata Diawara’s life sounds like a movie script. An implausible one at that.

At just 32, Fatoumata (she prefers “Fatou”) already has an accomplished acting career in film and theater. Today she’s forging a new musical identity with great fanfare in Europe, Africa and now North America.

Fatou’s Facebook page is flush with photos of her with world leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton, and with rock royalty such as Patti Smith, John Paul Jones and Elvis Costello. She performed with Sir Paul McCartney, culminating a hugely successful “African Express” tour in the UK, organized by Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn.

But as a young African woman from the heavily traditional country of Mali, her road to success was far from assured. Or easy.

By the age of 19 Fatou was already a film star. It started when she was looking after children on a film set and the director asked her to appear in a scene. Her performance was so affecting it led to roles in two more films, both of which became enormously popular in Africa.

But Fatou’s parents, traditional Malians, were uncomfortable with her sudden success. They wanted her to settle and marry. Reluctantly, she agreed, even choosing to announce her “retirement” on Malian TV.

Soon after, a visiting famed French director asked Fatou to join his theater troupe in Paris. In Mali, an unmarried woman, regardless of age, is legally considered a minor. She had to ask her parents’ permission. They refused. So, restless and unhappy, Fatou decided to go to France anyway. Her infuriated parents reported she’d been kidnapped and Malian police bore down on the airport just as her plane lifted off for Europe.

In France, Fatou performed onstage to critical acclaim. During the long hours required of theater work, she began singing to herself backstage. One day a director overheard and encouraged her to seriously pursue music. She began performing music in clubs around Paris (where she now permanently resides) and was enthusiastically greeted.

Encouraged, and consistent with classic rock and roll mythology, she picked up a guitar and taught herself to play (which is rare in Malian music culture).

Fatou played what she knew best: Malian music. Mali’s contemporary sound is defined by densely layered guitar work, heavy drumming and polyrhythmic complexity that anchors swirling vocals and choruses. Deeply influenced by jazz, blues, pop and rock, Fatou developed her own unique synthesis of style and sound.

A successful EP led to a record deal and her first album, “Fatou,” released in 2011, shot straight to No. 1 on world music charts.

Since then, Fatou has been on a grueling, non-stop world tour. For the past year she’s played throughout North America, committed to exposing her music to audiences less familiar with the world music/Afro-pop genre.

“When we first heard Fatou’s music, and realized we had a chance to bring her here, we jumped at it,” said Morgan Morrison, the Barns of Rose Hill’s director of operations. “Her music is a fascinating blend of contemporary and traditional African music.”

Morrison believes the Barns’ small size and intimate engagement between artists and concert-goers will result in something special with Fatou.

“If you watch her performances on YouTube, you’ll see she usually plays large festivals and concert venues. So we think this is a rare opportunity for people to experience her immense talent up close and personal. Considering what many people are predicting for her future, this might be the last chance to see her in this type of venue,” said Morrison.

Fatou’s voice – velvety silk with a dash of gravel – combined with gorgeously intricate melodies that radiate joy and sorrow, anger and hope, and her charismatic stage presence, have all the makings of a memorable concert.

If you go:
Where: the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville
When: Thursday, April 3 at 7:30 p.m.
For tickets and information, visit http://www.barnsofrosehill.org


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