Rokia Traore rocks out at the Phil

We saw Rokia Traoré play to a lamentably half-empty Philharmonic Hall last night in what was a triumphant, guitar-driven and characteristically high-energy set.  The focus was mainly on songs from her most recent album, Tchamantche, with the rock-guitar direction of that album accentuated: Rokia and her band now really rock out. This was a major contrast with her acoustic and more traditional Malian approach when I last saw her in 2004.

She  began, though, alone in the spotlight, picking out on her Gretsch guitar the notes of the stately ‘Dianfa’, from the last album. But the set soon changed gear with her French trio on guitar, bass and drums driving along raunchier versions of the Tchamantche tracks, with a Malian ngoni player and  female backing singer both adding punch and excitement.

At the time of  Tchamantche‘s release Rokia said that she wanted to create a new musical style that was ‘more modern, but still African, something more blues and rock than my folk guitar’. She had heard an old Gretsch, the classic electric guitar that was central to the group sounds of the 1950s and 1960s, played by everyone from Chet Atkins to George Harrison. That was the sound she had been looking for, and it is the sound that defined Tchamantche and this concert.

The set mainly featured the exquisite and adventurous songs from Tchamantche,  including ‘Dounia’, ‘Aimer’ and a more driving rendition of our favourite track, ‘Zen’, with the n’goni player switching to mbira thumb piano (as seen below, performed on Later with Jools Holland last year).

Another featured number from Tchamantche was ‘Tounka’, the song about migration from Africa to Europe, which she explained she had written as a positive message to encourage Africans to see that migration will not solve Africa’s problems – Africans must solve them at home. And this is more than empty rhetoric: she recently launched the Fondation Passerelle (‘passerelle’ being French for footbridge) to help young in Mali to build careers in the music business. After years of living in Amiens, she now spends much of the year in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

This was music that at times sounded more rock than Mali, and towards the end of the show, more decidedly funk and Afropop, but always distinctively African. One surprise was ‘Quit It’, once recorded by Miriam Makeba, which Rokia sung in English, encouraging us all to check out the work of Makeba, the artist she regards as Africa’s greatest, on YouTube. So here’s that number from that source:

At another point, she had segued from one of her own songs to the work of another African hero, Fela Kuti, with a rousing treatment ‘African Woman’. It was an exhilarating performance.

The support band were a revelation. Named after a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, led by their main writer and singer Tim Elsenburg, played an excellent set of what has been termed ‘British atmospheric art-pop’. They performed numbers from their second album, Twice Born Men, as well as some from their first, We Just Did What Happened and No One Came, the most outstanding of which was the mesmeric but rather unfathomable ‘In The Water I Am Beautiful’. Overall, it was a beautiful performance, with – as The Sunday Times has put it – ‘the indefinable floatiness of the verses the springboard for a succession of delicious pop choruses’.

Introducing their final song, ‘There It Will End’, Tim Elsenburg said ‘at the end of a lovely sunny day, here’s something really cheerful for you: