Mali has gifted the world innumerable earfuls of brilliant music over recent decades – bluesman Ali Farka Touré, albino singer Salif Keita and desert rockers Tinariwen immediately spring to mind. But the work of 37-year-old vocalist/guitarist/composer Rokia Traore stands alone.
Traoré's restive spirit has always pushed her down new avenues en route to previously unimaginable worlds. She lays claim to her own musical style, which she describes as “a new type of Afro-beat or Afro-rock beat”.
“It is half Malian and half European. I'm in the middle bringing my multiple influences to bear”, she adds.
Traoré's music is a fascinating mix of West African instruments - the n'goni lute, the balafon xylophone, the kora harp - and the Western rock staples of bass and drum kit. Her emotive and deeply-resonant voice is powerful enough to belt out her faster rhythmic songs but can still pull the heartstrings on quieter, more reflective numbers. Her lyrics address some controversial subjects such as co-existence, human rights, fate and tradition.
In “Tounka”, she tries to dissuade desperate African migrants from risking their lives on rafts to reach the southern tip of Europe's supposed promised land. “Say no to exodus. Spain is a source of suffering. On the road in salt water lies death. ”
Meanwhile, “Dianfa” presents Traore in much more personal mood. “I am afraid of the nothingness, I am afraid of the day my breath will abandon me. The ultimate betrayal.”
Traoré first found success in France before gaining not a little notoriety in her own country. Mali's structured music scene is dominated by the hereditary griot caste, a sort of closed shop which would never espouse her use of Western instruments or vocal harmonies. As an upper-class non-griot, Traoré could never escape criticism for her rebelliousness.
“People can't understand what I'm trying to do. Not because it's on too high a level, but because I need a chance to explain it to my audience, and it's hard to get access to TV,” she explained.
Embrace Traoré's work and you begin to embrace modern Africa.
Born in the western farming town of Kolokani, Traoré's internationalist approach is probably down to a peripatetic childhood where her Malian diplomat father took her to live in a variety of European and African countries. After a spell as member of Mali's first rap group, Traoré's initial attempt to give the country's traditional music a fresh treatment was seen in her debut work, Mouneïssa (1997). It won her the Radio France International Prize for African Discovery of the Year.
However, it was her third album, Bowmboi, which brought her to the notice of the European and American public in 2003. This was an album which Time called "mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity.” It even featured American string ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, on a couple of the tracks. Now part griot and part chanteuse, she won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award in 2003.
Her recordings have increasingly mirrored her true feelings for music, most recently in ‘Tchamantché’, a bluesier album recorded three years ago and dedicated to Touré, which employs electric guitar and even human beat box, Sly Johnson.
Cosmopolitan she may be, yet her vocals rarely stray from her native Bamana language. Only occasionally does she sing in French, while Tchamantché includes a foray into English; a version of George and Ira Gershwin's “The Man I Love”, most famously recorded by Billie Holiday. Holiday's life and work also provided a chance for Traoré in 2005 to tour the US in a tribute to the ill-starred jazz singer.
With her performances described by Time Out as “arguably the most exciting, most thrilling live African music show around,” Traoré began branching out further with her 2006 semi-operatic work to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. In ‘Wati’, she imagined the dying composer as a 13th century griot musician in the times of the great ruler, Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire.
Most recently, she embarked on “Desdemona”, a collaboration with theatre director Peter Sellars and Nobel Literature Prize Winner, Toni Morrison, in which Othello's lover stages a conversation with her African nurse, Barbary, from beyond the grave.
Traoré plays Barbary, first through her music and then in direct dialogue, in a production which is a highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival running in Britain from April to November next year. As she watches her fame grow, Traoré remains averse to trendy Europeans who love the exoticism of Africa but only when it is traditional.
“I think they have an image of Africa which they don't want to change. It's horrible,” she complains.
There you have it. Embrace Traoré's work and you begin to embrace modern Africa.
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