Fatoumata Diawara joked by phone that she was "born old."
On the surface, the claim might seem preposterous. After all, the Malian singer is only 31. But she has fit a considerable amount of living into those years through a career that led her from acting to activism.
Her work in the 2001 film Sia, le rêve du python (Sia, The Dream of the Python) made the Ivory Coast native a star in Mali at age 18. Then came music built around the traditional melodies of her homeland, which came to serve as a voice for the rights of women and children at a time when much of northern Mali fell into war.
"I became very popular in my country through the cinema before I started to write songs," said Diawara, who performs Thursday as part of the Norton Center for the Arts' Club Weisiger series in Danville. "I'm going to be 32 very soon but I feel like I'm very old because everybody knows me — the generation before me and the generation today and even the future generation. Sia became one of the most famous, most popular movies in my country. That you can touch several generations and have them still know the story is so good. The only thing is I feel like I've never been a child in my life. That's strange."
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What was never strange to Diawara was music. Acting brought her into public view initially, but what was prevalent all around her as a child in the rhythmically fertile regions of Mali was singing.
"In Mali, music is something very natural," she said. "When we woke up every day, the first thing we did to express ourselves was by singing. When we walked, everybody sang. Well, the men don't sing a lot. They were mostly musicians. They played instruments. The women in the family would sing. So for years, I grew up with this tradition with my parents in Mali.
"Today, I try to adapt that singing to the modern styles and try to touch more people in the world. I keep the traditional singing, but I'm trying to use modern instruments to make more people like this music that talks to people so very directly."
On her 2011 album Fatou, that music regularly speaks of human dignity and resolve, especially when it comes to Africa's women and children. On Alama, Fatou sings about being branded a witch and a whore as she calls for justice through tolerance for the families and orphans of Mali. Boloko speaks directly to the physical mutilations and circumcisions endured by African women.
Such topicality might not seem evident upon listening to the recording. The rhythms fueling her music are modestly contemporary to keep in line with other Afrobeat and world-music artists ("it's funky music"), but Diawara sings in the Wassalou dialect of the Maninkakan language of West Africa.
"It's best when I'm singing in my traditional language," she said. "It's the best way for me to be true with my audience. I must be truthful with myself, too. It's good that some of us can follow the ways of tradition where the music isn't some percent of pop or sung in English and becomes completely modern.
"I like to touch people with the song, with the language and with the stories that convey women's conditions in Africa, the children's conditions, political situations. My music tries to change the majority, tries to talk to women. It's not the men who can do everything for us; it's also our job to wake up and fight for ourselves. It's a mighty message you can send with music."
Now living in France, Diawara has performed throughout the world, from the annual Glastonbury festival in England to a New York performance last fall affiliated with the Clinton Global Initiative that teamed her with The Roots.
The desert areas of Northern Mali have largely been left desolate in the wakes of multiple wars — especially between Tuareg rebels and Islamic extremists in 2012 — but Diawara's ties to her homeland remain resilient.
"Nobody is living in the north of Mali anymore. So that's very sad. But I go back because I have to go back. I have to go back to be voices of those innocent people, to be voices for those children who are suffering, who are looking for water because the desert is a very difficult place to live, even in peace. Imagine what it's like when you're in trouble, when you are in war situations.
"But I don't want to keep crying all the time, either — crying for Africa every time a famine hits or a war starts. I want to find a positive way to help. To be positive brings you more power."