Escaping tragedy in her home country and beyond, Malian superstar Fatoumata Diawara has found respite reimagining her proud musical heritage in dynamic new ways. But with a new album, this inventive serial collaborator is going deeper than ever. Read this and more in the latest issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
There’s a late winter sharpness in the air, while glints of sunlight dance off Lake Como. A soft haze envelops the surrounding hills where Fatoumata Diawara has lived since 2020. It’s an unexpectedly calm spot to find the Malian star. After all, she has endured a lifetime of dramatic exiles and escapes through Ivory Coast, Mali and France, and a suitably hectic music career which has seen her work with Damon Albarn, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Womack.
Fatoumata Diawara has taken the funicular railway into town to meet Uncut. We sit outside a café across from the Gothic Como Cathedral, whose bells toll as we talk over lunchtime bowls of spaghetti pomodoro. Diawara values the meal’s “simplicity”, the same pure quality she seeks in her music. Today she wears a long dark padded winter coat and tall woollen hat. She laughs often and infectiously, though she is visibly moved when she reflects on the life-changing traumas that blighted her adolescence.
The cathedral is a few blocks away from Lake Como itself. In 2020, Diawara and Damon Albarn shot a promo video on the lake for the Gorillaz single “Désolé”. In the clip, the pair can be seen grinning with delight as they speed across the surface of the water.
“Damon’s like my protector,” Diawara laughs. “He always told me, ‘Any time you want a sister, I will be there for you.’ It’s very precious, this kind of love.
Diawara and Albarn’s friendship stretches back to 2011, when he invited her to join his cross-cultural collective Africa Express. They have continued to work together, including on Albarn’s African opera Le Vol Du Boli in its 2020 and 2022 Paris runs. This spring sees the pair’s biggest collaboration yet, with Albarn co-producing Diawara’s third and most brilliantly radical album, London Ko.
“This album really represents what I’d like to be,” Diawara enthuses. “Nobody did this in Mali before. It’s not like Gorillaz music either. It’s both of us. I was composing the base, the melodies, backing vocals, then Damon was cleaning up, changing basslines. We both love melodies and were complementary.”
“As a musician, she has amazing feel and inventiveness,” Albarn tells Uncut. “She is smart, funny, warm and has the voice of an angel. I suppose I added more of an electronic feel to her music and I can’t wait to hear it played live!”
Diawara’s voice is as always at the heart of London Ko. There’s a grain to it on record, a rough vulnerability more Billie Holiday than Beyoncé. “That’s true, because I’ve got this rebel in me,” she says.
“Music to me is like a guard to defend myself, to be the protector of love,” Diawara says. “Because people in my past tried to take this love out of me. I’ve got what Damon’s got, what Herbie Hancock and many artists have. That mix of things that doesn’t have a name, that you can call fragility or sensibility, holy power or hunger. That’s why I love Damon, because he knows that I’ve got that bruise. You call it the blues.”
Fatoumata Diawara’s London Ko is set to release May 12 2023