Doug Pullen: Giving voice to African women

Doug Pullen: Giving voice to African women

West African singer Fatoumata Diarawa, who performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Tricky Falls, has seduced Western audiences with her sultry voice and sparse music, a cross between Western jazz and pop and the music of the Wassoulou region of southern Mali where she grew up.Ê

It’s sweet sounding stuff, but the messages in her songs are powerful and not always pleasant. “Sowa” decries the practice in which parents — half her native country lives in poverty — sell their children for money, a song she has said is “close to my heart.” In the video, which can be found on YouTube, Diarawa sings the song wrapped in cellophane.

“Baloko” is about female circumcision, a controversial practice common in some African countries. “Don’t cut

the flower that makes me a woman,” she sings in her native Bambara language (the official video includes an English translation).”You know, I grew up in Africa and I’m conscious of the situations of women,” Diarawa said by phone recently. “It’s very hard to be a woman in that place. That’s why I feel it’s necessary to be an example of my generation, to be an example for other girls (like me).”

Thanks to the Internet and social media, it’s easier for artists like Diarawa to get their message to their audience. The fact that her work is being embraced by Western audiences, both in Europe and North America, is “very exciting,” she said.

Her debut album, “Fatou,” was released in Europe in 2011, staying at or near the top

of that continent’s world music charts for nearly six months. Her label, World Circuit, released it through Nonesuch Records in this country last Aug. 28, which Diarawa followed with her first American tour.

“Audiences have really, really been accepting for me,” she said. “I like it. I like to make people know more about (me). I talk with them, sharing my woman’s life and Malian life with them so it’s like a new school.”

Diarawa was born in Ivory Coast, which shares a border with Mali, a former French colony that gained its independence after nearly 100 years of French rule in 1960. It’s largely agricultural, mostly rural and half its population of nearly 15 million people lives at or below the international poverty line. It’s produced several Afropop and world beat stars, including guitarist Ali Farke Toure, Salif Keita and Amadou & Mariam.

Her parents did not support Diarawa ‘s acting aspirations. “I was supposed to be married with my cousin,” she said, “and I decided differently, to be independent, which was very difficult for me.”

She moved to France in her early teens and pursued acting, landing roles in plays such as “Antigone,” and movies starting in the latter half of the ’90s. She was a member of Paris’ Royal de Luxe street theater troupe for six years and landed the lead role in a musical called “Kirikou et Karaba,” which inadvertently led to her second career as a singer and songwriter.

“From theater, I started to sing, too. I developed my voices in theater and people were coming to the show and they told me about my voices and they want to know more about me,” she said. “So I started to write the songs and learn how to play an instrument to be independent, and I write about my little life as a woman, as a child of Africa. I like to share my experiences.”

Those experiences, and that sultry voice, have caught the ears of fans and critics, not to mention some pretty famous names. Diarawa contributed vocals to Herbie Hancock’s “Imagine” album, and Damon Albarn’s “Rocket Juice and the Moon,” which includes the Blur singer and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea.Ê

She also has sung on Bobby Womack’s new album, and her own debut features Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on one song and fellow countryman Ouman Sangare.

Her Tricky Falls appearance — tickets are $20 at the club, All That Music & Video, Eloise, Maria’s Closet and holdmyticket.com — is part of her second American tour, a monthlong trek that included an appearance with Zimbabwe singer-guitarist Oliver Mtukudzi, who was the first African headliner at the club last March. She’ll be the second.

Saturday’s show follows a performance in Mexico City, and a recent International Women’s Day concert with Angelique Kidjo in London. Diarawa will perform at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival on June 13.

While she’s happy to spread her views about female oppression in the continent of her birth, Diarawa is not happy with the political and military crises that threaten her home country. Over the past year, Mali has weathered a secessionist rebellion in the north, battles between the northern Tuareg people and Islamists. In January, France sent in troops to battle the Islamist forces.

Elections in the democratic country are scheduled for July. Diarawa responded to the crisis by rounding up several Malian musicians, including Sangare, to record “Mali-Ko (Peace/La Paix)” under the banner of Voices United for Mali.

“It’s very sad what’s happening today in Mali,” she said, adding that she and others are “working hard to protect our music, protect our culture, you know, the traditions.”

But there are a few traditions she’s trying to change. “It took a big decision in my life to be where I am today,” Fatou said, “so, for me, it’s important to share my experience (with) other girls.”

Doug Pullen may be reached at dpullen@elpasotimes.com; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at elpasotimes.com/blogs. Follow him on Twitter @dougpullen and Facebook at facebook.com /dougpulleneptimes.

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