Fatoumata Diawara: A Malian Singer Fights Back Against Islamists

Fatoumata Diawara performs at Granary Square on Sept. 8, 2012 in London, United Kingdom. Philip Ryalls/Redferns via Getty

Swaddled in a tendril of vivid scarves, like fireworks about her face, Fatoumata Diawara nurses an espresso in a corner banquette, all infectious triumph. Outside this cozy café near the Malian singer's Paris home, gray figures hunch against an afternoon drizzle. Today in Mali, just over 2,000 miles due south, French forces are pursuing a campaign against al Qaeda–linked jihadists. And at long last, the storied desert city of Timbuktu is free. A cultural capital forever steeped in sound—where zealots had dared ban music itself—can sing again. But Diawara's vanquishing verve isn't strictly about the war, or not entirely.

As Islamist fighters flee northern Mali's cities and dig into hideouts deep in the Sahel Desert, Diawara knows the war has yet to be won. (She once lets slip the word "victory," only to reel it back quickly.) But that won't stop her from savoring success today in more personal battles.

On a December visit to Bamako, Mali's capital, after long months touring Europe and North America to support her critically acclaimed debut album, the 30-year-old chanteuse issued a battle cry of her own. "I no longer recognized my country," Diawara says. Inspired, she wrote a jangly guitar melody and called together an unprecedented musical supergroup. Forty of Mali's top stars signed on. The blind husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam, venerated songstress Oumou Sangaré, legendary kora player Toumani Diabaté, master ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté, and major Malian rappers joined in, with Ivory Coast's Tiken Jah Fakoly adding his star power.

The result is "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)," a seven-minute song and video that blasts the fundamentalist conquest of the north and urges unity to quell resentment against the Tuareg minority whom some blame for abetting the incursion. "Our weapons were the only things we had: our guitars, our koras, our ngonis, to rap at the door," Diawara says.

Of the jihadists then poised to descend on the capital, she says, "I didn't know that France was going to intervene. The African Union wasn't reacting, and those people were arriving with such force." She had felt better informed living in Europe than while visiting Bamako, where news was scarce. "I needed to scream with this song, 'Wake up! We are losing Mali! We are losing our culture, our tradition, our origins, our roots!' " Diawara says. "It was so strong in my heart and my soul. So when France intervened—I put out the record [just] days later—it was as if God had heard us."

Mali, a landlocked West African nation that ranks among the world's poorest, is home to some of the richest musical traditions in the world. The moral authority of music is difficult to overstate socially, culturally, or politically in a nation where, for centuries, the hereditary caste of griots, or traditional praise singers, has been charged with relaying oral history, resolving disputes, and performing at ceremonies. "Music is at the heart of everything," Diawara explains. "When a couple is divorcing, to calm it one must call a griot to intervene with song to say don't separate for the children," she says. "With beautiful voices, people have heard messages better than with talk."

A precious soft-power asset, Mali's musicians are cultural ambassadors. The annual Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu, enjoys cult status with Western tourists and has featured guest performances by Robert Plant and Bono. Indeed, Mali, a wellspring of African-American blues (and, as such, currents of rock, jazz, and soul), is arguably a sort of ground zero for a wide swath of popular music.

"Without music, Mali is no longer Mali," Diawara says. "And that power was in danger with the Islamists who wanted to stop the music." Under the strict application of Sharia in the northern two thirds of the country under fundamentalist control, offenders are said to have been punished with public floggings, stonings, and amputations. And music was banned outright. Acting authorities reportedly issued beatings for cellphone ringtones, smashed instruments and recording equipment, and pledged to amputate musicians' fingers. Timbuktu singer Khaïra Arby has said fundamentalists threatened to cut out her tongue. Arby appears on "Mali-ko (Peace/La Paix)," belting out its first solo couplet: "Men and women of Mali, let's stand together/Our country is not warlike."

The irony of Diawara taking the lead in a musical bid to emancipate Mali and rescue its traditions isn't lost on her. After all, Diawara emancipated herself first. Keen to break a cycle of oppressive custom, she fled Mali 10 years ago for Paris—with police in pursuit.

Born to Malian parents in Ivory Coast in 1982, Diawara performed in her father's dance troupe as a child. At 12, her parents dispatched their rebellious daughter to Bamako hoping an actress aunt could keep her in line. Discovered on a movie set, Diawara began acting at 14, winning fame in popular West African films. At 18, she traveled to Paris for a stage role. But soon her family insisted she bow to custom and marry, even forcing her to announce on live television that she was quitting acting. When a French impresario traveled to Bamako to invite her to join the prestigious Royal de Luxe theater company, her family refused permission. So, at 20, Diawara ran away, boarding a flight to Paris before police could halt her.

"If I had let that slip by, I wouldn't be here today. I'd have minimum nine children and be very, very old. Breasts sagging already. No job because I don't have diplomas," Diawara says. "I was going to be a homemaker, like plenty of other women who could change Mali's history. But who, under pressure from family and tradition, don't get to participate in the development of their country because they have other worries."

Today, Diawara is married to an Italian man. ("We chose one another.") She spent five years with Royal de Luxe and toured the world singing back-up and dancing for Oumou Sangaré and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She has lent vocals to albums by Herbie Hancock and Bobby Womack. The eclectic Blur frontman Damon Albarn has borrowed Diawara's chops for three recent projects, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen chipped in on her own debut.

Diawara wrote every song on her album Fatou, a groovy mix of beats from her ancestral Wassoulou region, rock, pop, and folk. Singing in Bambara, in a warm timbre at turns silky and ragged, she strums first-person tales of alienated youth, desperate migrants, forced marriage, even female genital mutilation.

Her songs aim, however gently, to change minds. "African women live through too much hell and suffering/We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them/Keep what's good for us and reject all that harms us," she sings on "Boloko," about female genital mutilation. "Life is short. Let women blossom for the little life that they have. I was excised—it brought me nothing, only problems," she says.

"I had the chance to travel from a young age and a lot of people in Mali don't have that chance. So it's my duty to share my experience," Diawara says. "I've seen that in Europe women fought to get to where they are."

The songstress admits she waited in vain last year for Mali's musical elders to call on her for a project like "Mali-ko." Family members warned her against taking a risky political stand herself. Yet Diawara's supergroup anthem seems to have resolved more than she planned. Her family, leery for years of her free-spirited career, had mostly come around—but their pride at her assembling true musical royalty is manifest. And she has proven something more. "I'm young, sure. But with what I have lived through, I can take on big responsibilities now. There was a point where I understood that and said, 'OK, let's go.' "