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Mali's Fatoumata Diawara has a lot to say

By Alison Hird

Seven years after her acclaimed debut album Fatou, the Malian singer songwriter and actress Fatoumata Diawara has released Fenfo meaning "something to say" in her native Bambara language. The Paris-based star talks to RFI about taking pride in African heritage, sexuality and why it was time to forgive her parents for the past.

"Fatou was about introducing myself, telling people who I am," Diawara told RFI. "Fenfo is telling people what I've become."

For a start she's become a mother and is proud of it. She's also enlarged her essentially wassoulou folk repertoire to include blues, afrobeat, rock and pop.

Fenfo was co-produced with France's Mathieu Chedid aka M and he's clearly fuelled the funk-rock side. She's also worked alongside British singer/producer Damon Albarn on Africa Express, Nigerian afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, Herbie Hancock, Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca and French cellist Vincent Segal.

They've all "fed into the album in some way" she adds.

While many African artists with international careers record at least a few songs in English, Diawara celebrates her native Bambara.

"My relationship with music is all about healing, sharing energy, connecting with people, being generous," she explains. "When I’m on stage, even if it’s only for an hour or so I want people to travel with me, up into the clouds. So if I can’t be in my element, there’s no point. When I sing in Bambara I feel real."

Fatoumata Diawara with French musician Matthieu Chedid in Bamako, 26 January 2017. SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC / AFP

Diawara has become a significant voice on the African continent, something of a role model for many young people.

"I’m a survivor, I’ve battled all my life," she says in reference to bouts of depression after being abandoned by her parents.

"I try to dialogue with young people, to be their voice and represent all these women who quite simply haven’t managed to be everything they wanted to be because they’re weighed down by tradition. And not just in Africa!"

Diawara performs at Jazz in Marciac, 8 August; Le Trianon, Paris, 11 December.

Watch the standout video for the song Nterini, shot by Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh.

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