Rokia Traore

The first time I saw Rokia Traore live was in 2004.  I’d travelled to Oldham to see her perform in the tiny back room of a pub. The night before, in Edinburgh, she had been presented with the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award (Africa section). It was a memorable evening: the intimate setting, an acoustic set with Rokia’s exquisite, breathy vocals  accompanied only by a guy on water calabash and a young woman who joined her on vocals and in some wild dancing.

Monday night’s gig at the Royal Northern College of Music couldn’t have been more different: a large hall, packed with an enthusiastic audience clearly familiar with the five albums that Rokia now has to her name. And the sound: apart from one delicate number during the encores, this was a hard-rocking show.  Currently touring Britain to support her new album Beautiful Africa, Traore has assembled a band that blasts out a driving hard rock  sound, albeit that her songs and elements of the music draw deeply from Malian tradition.

Beautiful Africa is a rock album, celebrated as such by Traore herself. Of late, she has been wedded to the sound of an old Gretsch guitar, a sound unfurled on her gorgeous 2008 album Tchamantché.  On that and the latest CD, Malian n’gouni, classical harp, and kora are blended with the Gretsch, as well as acoustic guitars, layered in staggered rhythms with snares, drum kit, and percussion. On disc, the instrumentation is sparse, contrasting the Gretsch with subtle percussion effects or the n’goni, the tiny, sharp-edged West African lute that has always been a key element of her sound.

In this live performance in Manchester, though, much of that subtlety was lost in a barrage of sixties-style rock guitar riffs. With her Gretsch loud in the mix, Rokia would  repeat a simple guitar figure endlessly through most songs.  Meanwhile, Stefano Pilia rolled out soaring guitar solos reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour – and even threw in a few passages of wah-wah to reinforce the classic rock feel.  That this is the sound Rokia has been pursuing was confirmed in an interview she gave to Pitchfork magazine:

Of course the folk guitar is the one I play very often, but I wanted a more electric sound. Not electric like the hard rock happening today. I wanted something more 1970s, 60s, 50s, and, of course, because of rock, my choice came very quickly to the Gretsch guitar. I tried it on one song and I was really satisfied, and finally all the rest of the album was composed around the sound of the Gretsch.

I do not deny the quality of the musicianship demonstrated at the Manchester show: every member of the band was on top form, from the  female bass guitarist (whose name I did not catch) to drummer Seb Rochford, the brilliant ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, and backing singers Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou. But I have to say that hearing the varied moods of songs from Beautiful Africa and the previous album Tchamantché uniformly steam-hammered by riffy repetitions of heavy electric guitar –  well, I felt something had been lost.  If there had only been some variation, a little space opened up in the aural landscape.

Pitchfork magazine described Traoré’s 2009 record, Tchamantché, as ‘a guitar album of a particularly understated bent…hauntingly spare yet ridiculously well-defined, the timbre and tone of every string presented in perfect resolution’. Here, though, the intricate, delicate instrumentation of songs like ‘Zen’ from Tchamantché and ‘Melancolie’ from the latest album were submerged beneath the attack of the killer guitar riffs.  Though the title might suggest otherwise, ‘Melancolie’ is not a gloomy song, quite the opposite in fact.  But its inspirational sentiments, dedicated to all that brings joy and happiness seemed quite lost in its new arrangement that made me think a little of Bob Dylan machine-gunning his lyrics into oblivion on the live Hard Rain album:

Melancholy dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my joyful dreams

Melancholy sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

Melancholy
Faithful companion
Of my solitude

Melancholy, I don’t want your pain
Whirling in the fissures of my heart
Your tears that tarnish the colours of my soul
I long for laughter that explodes in sparks
Dreams that twirl and poems recite
And I’ll be gentler than the most beautiful of all joys

Melancholy, dance with me
To the beautiful cadence of my dreamed of joys

Melancholy, sing with me
The words of happiness
That inspire life in me

The set consisted entirely of songs from the last two albums – songs such as ‘Sikey’, ‘Ka Moun Ke’, ‘Tuit Tuit’, ‘Kouma’ and the title track from Beautiful Africa on which Traore addresses the unrest in her Malian homeland with impassioned words sung as wah-wah guitar and ngoni collide.

Although based in Bamako, Traoré has, for her son’s safety, temporarily relocated to Paris due to the current conflict in Mali.  It’s impossible for a musician from Mali to make a record today without referencing the terrible chaos and violence that has blighted the once-peaceful country since the beginning of 2012:

Malians, let’s conquer the pride that’s rife within us,
It only leads to pain.
Disrespecting our fellow being only leads to disharmony
These battles in which everyone thinks only of themselves
Bring nothing but destruction
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Battered, wounded Africa,
Why do you keep the role of the beautiful naive deceived
Yet, my faith does not know failure
More intense than ever,
My faith does not know failure
I love you beautiful Africa
Afrique je t’aime
I love you beautiful Africa
You are beautiful Africa
Hei hei héhé hei hé
Conflict is no solution, pride is hardly virtuous
Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.

Performing title track from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

The evening had begun with Rokia playing the exquisite guitar figure from ‘Dounia’, the opening track on Tchamantché. When she begins to sing you realise that where most female Malian vocalists tend to sing rather stridently, Rokia’s voice is intimate and almost understated.  She’s the daughter of a Malian diplomat who was posted to the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and studied sociology in Brussels before embarking on her musical career. She sings mainly in her native languages, French and Bambara.

Rokia’s music draws upon Mali’s traditions, but increasingly on American rock as well – music she has listened to throughout her life. In the Pitchfork interview, she explained:

I can’t do Malian traditional music because I don’t have that training. There are some specific schools for that, and I didn’t have the chance to learn how to do pure Malian traditional music – by traditional I mean not just classical, but music that is danced to and listened to in Mali today. I think this position that I have is suitable for me, because the interesting thing for me is to put together all my influences and all my experiences I got through my travelling with my father. My influences are jazz, blues, European classical music; they are rock music and pop music. So many kinds of music.

Her love of jazz – and especially of Billie Holiday – was referenced during the encores when she sang ‘Gloomy Sunday’.  Just before she recorded Tchamantché, Rokia was involved in a project called Billie & Me, with other vocalists, including Dianne Reeves: ‘I love jazz music and blues, and I used to listen to her,’ she told Pitchfork. Her own version of The Man I Love’ ended up on Tchamantché.

Towards the end of the show Rokia remarked, rather grumpily, that we were ‘a quiet audience’. We probably were – it’s not easy to let your hair down when seated in the RNCM’s concert hall.  But then Rokia and the band did a phenomenal job, getting everyone on their feet, clapping and stamping to a Malian-style praise song in which she name-checked and introduced the band members by name – as well as reciting in Bambara what sounded like their artistic cv’s. The number, which last for close on 20 minutes, just kept building momentum and energy, and brought the show to a tumultuous conclusion.

The encores included the aforementioned ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung acappella, the only song led by Rokia on acoustic guitar, before a final, rousing number with scorching dance moves by Rokia, Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumbounou.

Performing ‘Ka Moun Ke’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Edinburgh, 811.13

Performing ‘Sikey’ from Beautiful Africa, live in Brighton, 6.11.13

My determination is strong
My aim is clear to me.
Without artifice or malice,
Without ever hankering for the other summits
That tower over my own limits.
Accompanied by this unknown destiny,
Borne along by my convictions,
I advance with sure step towards the answers
Scrupulously hidden away
Behind the enigmas of life.

Hé sikey (let’s talk openly!)
Your senseless hate will change nothing.

Closing moments of the show, Edinburgh, 8.11.13

Rokia Traoré: Roots live in 2011

In November and December 2011, Rokia performed a limited series of thirteen acoustic concerts, ‘a magnificent journey where voice and strings made tribute to the Mandingo tradition, a tribute to her own roots’.  This full-length concert video shows a different Rokia Traoré to the one I witnessed the other night in Manchester.  She’s joined by Mamah Diabaté (ngoni), Mamadyba Camara (kora), Habib Sangare (Bolon), Virginia Dembele (chorus), Fatim Kouyate (vocals) and Bintou Soumbounou (chorus).

Rokia Traoré: live at The Festival Les Suds, Arles, August 2013

A full-length performance from the Beautiful Africa tour last summer, with some of the same band members.

See also

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