Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara (aka Fatou) was born in the Ivory Coast in 1982 then raised in Mali. As a child she became a member of her father's dance troupe and was a popular performer of the wildly flailing didadi dance from Wassoulou, her ancestral home in western Mali. In 2002 she took up a career in acting, but as an unmarried woman in Malian society, she needed her parents permission to take it further. They refused permission and Fatoumata took the astonishing and life changing decision to flee her country unaided and start a new life in France.

After a few years of acting Fatoumata was encourage by a friend to take up the guitar and start playing music. "To me it was a wonderful and daring thing: a Malian girl with an acoustic guitar. Why should the guitar be only for men?"

From there, her life went down a path that led her to work with such people as Damon Albarn on Africa Express, Herbie Hancock and John Paul Jones. In 2011 her debut album 'Fatou' was released through World Circuit Records, to huge critical acclaim.

Looking at your background, performance seems to be in your blood. You started off dancing in your father's troop, when you were very young. Has performance always been something that's come naturally to you?

Yes, it comes very naturally. I didn't learn from anybody. When I was a kid, dancing was very natural. I didn't have to do it for anybody, I did it for myself. It's my soul, it's my passion. It's simple. I like it when life is so simple.

You actually escaped your country against your parents' wishes to pursue acting in France. How would you say it affected your life?

For sure. It was a very big moment in my life. It was important for happiness. It helped me to find my soul.

So you went to France and started an acting career, what made you pick up the guitar and sing?

It was a continuity of my life. When I came to France, I started to sing so I really had to do music without anybody. I started to sing in acapella.

When I started working with different musicians, one musician called me to say 'No, we cannot play tonight with you in Paris' and gradually I went through my decision and worked in a guitar shop and I bought a guitar and I learnt it and went on stage.

So you taught yourself the guitar from scratch?

Yes, I learned the guitar by myself. It's a good experience for me because when I met different people, different teachers, and I said it was difficult, I can talk to them about my experience. I met many younger girls that wanted to learn the guitar and when I talked to them about my story, I see on their eyes that they want to create to. Yes, hopefully I've inspired them.

So many people from all around the world have responded to your music. Why do you think so many people have responded the way they have?

That's a very extraordinary thing that's happened to me. I'm really so surprised for someone like me on my first album. I'm so so happy to see what's happening now. To know about the path it is taking.

I was at the Guardian Open Weekend. When I heard you give simple explanations of the songs beforehand and then listening to the music, I found myself getting very emotional and really responding to it and I think that's what happened with so many other people.

Yeah, that's my aim, it's like music is very simple. My goal is to touch people with melodies. My different melodies and to be very close to the audience so it's more like a family, when I meet you, you become my family, because I'm singing for you and I'm very natural to you and I want to give happiness and a sweet moment to the people. In that way I want to give love, and to express simple voices and sweetness.

Tell the readers more about the music you grew up on - Wassoulou music. In its truest form, would you consider it Soul music?

Yes, but it's from different traditions. So when I'm singing. it's like it's coming from my family. I'm very comfortable with this language, but only when I'm singing. I can't speak the language like I was from there but when I sing; it's something totally natural, peaceful. It's like everyone can follow me. That's very strange. That's why I didn't try to sing in English or French, because I want to be very true to my audience. The difference to me is that in Mali, it's very important to be your style and I'm trying to adapt to my generation with different words, different melodies.

And you have a lot of fans from the music world and musicians. David Albarn, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and Herbie Hancock and all these people have been talking about how good you are. How did these connections come about?

It's incredible. We don't speak too much, we feel. It's beautiful. When I met John Paul, it was wonderful to be with him because he saw me and listened to me singing, he said: 'I want her in the project'. It was the same with Damon. We don't speak really because my English is bad, but we do music together and I know them and we know each other. When he plays and I sing something, he says 'Woah! What's happening?' We love to share music. That is something very special, you cannot explain it.

Tell me about Africa Express and that whole project?

I love this project because I met Flea, Damon, everybody through the project and it's an amazing thing to do, because you meet like 300 people but there are maybe 10 people that you really connect with. We come and we play music together and we don't need to speak. You meet your family. You meet people that you really want to work with. I love this project, I think it is a really good idea, it's also very important.

When are you next playing in the UK?

Well, I need to check that as we have many gigs around Europe this summer and many festivals, lots of gigs going on. I would love to play more in England though.

Fatou's EP Kanou is released on 9 May, 2011 followed by her debut album Fatou on 19 September, 2011 (29 September in France).

  • 22 May / Brighton Festival / Brighton
  • 30 June / Back2Black / London
  • 13 July / Latitude / Southwold
  • 14 July / Larmer Tree / Salisbury
  • 30 June / Back2Black / London
  • 11 August / Wilderness / Cornbury Park
  • 31 August / Electric Picnic / Dublin