“It’s clear that it’s inspired by rock music,” says Mali’s international star Rokia Traoré of her new album, Beautiful Africa. “But I didn’t want to make rock and roll in the Western tradition…I wanted something that’s rock and roll but still Malian and still me.”
The past year has been a quite extraordinarily productive period for Traoré. One of the most inventive female singer/songwriters in Africa today, she is remarkable not just for the range of her powerful and emotional voice but also for the sheer variety of her work. She has written three wildly different new sets of music: the acoustic Damou (Dream), the often bluesy Donguili (Sing), and the rock-influenced Donke (Dance), in which she set out to show “three different aspects of Malian culture and my own personality.” Produced by the UK’s prestigious Barbican, all three were performed at different London venues in one week last summer—a feat she repeated at this year’s Sydney Festival in Australia. She has toured Britain on the Africa Express train, stopping off around the country for concerts that included collaborations with Damon Albarn as well as Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones, who joined her backing band for the London finale. And she has continued acting as well, with British and European performances in Toni Morrison and Peter Sellars’ much-praised theatrical/musical re-working of the Shakespearian story of Desdemona, for which she wrote the music.
Now comes Beautiful Africa, an album of the powerful new songs, first heard in her Donke project, reminding listeners it was rock music that first inspired Traoré’s remarkable career. “I really like rock,” she said, “and it was because of rock that I wanted to play music.” When she was growing up, an older brother used to play her Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. “It wasn’t all I listened to—I discovered jazz and blues with my dad, and Malian and other African music, and French chanson, but it was rock music that made me want to learn guitar.”
There are three guitarists on the album, including Traoré herself, but though the record is constructed around rock riffs and sturdy bass work, it still has a distinctively West African feel, thanks to rousing performances from Mamah Diabaté on the n’goni, the ancient, harsh-edged African lute. It’s an instrument that Traoré has used in compositions throughout her career, and she argues, “You can put it with everything. I’ve used n’goni in classical music projects, and it goes with blues, or jazz, or rock and roll. It’s a great instrument!”
Traoré’s changes of musical direction usually start with “a sound that I imagine…a sound inside my head.” She didn’t want to imitate what other people had done “because I need to do what I imagine—that’s the reason I’m making music.” But she needed someone to help her create the sound that she imagined, and eventually decided on John Parish, the writer, guitarist, and producer who has worked with Tracy Chapman, Eels, and PJ Harvey.
“I chose to work with John,” she says, “because when I listened to PJ Harvey or his other work, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I could imagine what the man who made this sound could do with me if we collaborated on my music. I was curious about it, but not sure about getting what I was imagining.” During the recordings, she said “he just asked me to listen to things and make my choice, and sometimes when I didn’t like or understand something, he changed it.” And was she happy with the results? “This is what I wanted to make and I’m happy. It’s even more than I imagined.”
Traoré, Parish, and Stefano Pilia play guitars on the album, with Nicolai Munch-Hansen on bass, percussion from Sebastian Rochford (Polar Bear), ‘human beatbox’ effects from Jason Singh, and n’goni playing and backing vocals by fellow Malian musicians Fatim Kouyaté and Bintou Soumounou, both members of the Foundation Passerelle that Traoré established in Bamako, the Malian capital, to help her fellow Malians prepare for careers in music and sustain the growth of Mali’s rich musical culture.. Traoré was awarded the inaugural Roskilde Festival World Music Award in 2009 for her work with the Foundation.
The songs are in the West African language of Bambara, as well as French and occasional bursts of English, and the often personal lyrics are concerned with Traoré’s thoughts on her own life, and on her tragically battered homeland.
Mali is a country that has become known around the world for its extraordinary musicians—from Traoré through to Amadou & Mariam, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Fatoumata Diawara, Tinariwen, Bassekou Kouyaté, Oumou Sangaré, Afel Bocoum, Salif Keita, among others—and was once a great tourist destination, famous for the desert cities and for the Niger river, as well as the celebrated Festival in The Desert. But over the past year it has slipped into political chaos, with the President overthrown in a military coup in the capital, and rebel groups taking over large sections of the north of the country. The rebels then splintered into different factions, with those initially fighting for independence in the north usurped by extremist Islamist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, and who went on to ban music in the areas they controlled. Military forces from France, Mali, and other African nations have fought to repel these advances.
The album’s title track, built around the sturdiest rock riff on the album, is very much a love song to “battered, wounded Africa,” and reflects Traoré’s despair and fury at what has happened to her country, while commenting on problems elsewhere in Africa, from Ivory Coast to Congo. “The flood of my tears is in full spate, ardent is my pain,” she sings, while arguing that, “Conflict is no solution…Lord, give us wisdom, give us foresight.”
Other songs on the album include the thoughtful ballad “Sarama,” a praise song to Malian women, partly sung in English, and the personal “Mélancolie,” a surprisingly upbeat song about loneliness and sadness that has already become a radio hit in France. Traoré says that she was lonely as a child, partly because her father was a diplomat and constantly on the move, and partly because she was the middle child in a family of seven.
Another, more upbeat song, “Sikey,” is also autobiographical, looking back at the criticism she received when she first set out to become a professional musician, and her determination to keep going. After all, she was not a griot, from a family of traditional musicians, but the daughter of a diplomat. And although she had no musical training, she gave up her studies in Brussels to return to Mali to create a new form of music, in which her songs would be backed by her acoustic guitar, along with n’goni and the xylophone-like balaba balafon, two instruments not normally played together in Africa.
Her breakthrough came when she was hailed as the ‘African Discovery’ of 1997 by Radio France Internationale after playing at the Angouleme Festival, in France, and since then she has continued to experiment and explore new ideas. In 2003, her album Bowmboï included a collaboration with Kronos Quartet and was awarded a prestigious BBC Radio 3 World Music Award. Her 2009 album Tchamantché reflected her new fascination with the Gretsch electric guitar, and won a Victoires de la Musique, the French equivalent of a Grammy, as well as a Songlines Artist of the Year Award for Traoré.
She has twice collaborated with the maverick director Peter Sellars, who in 2006 invited her to write and perform a work for his New Crowned Hope project, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. Traoré replied by imagining Mozart as a griot in the time of the 13th-century African ruler Soundiata Keita, whose empire was centred in what is now Mali. She also recently collaborated with Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison and Sellars on the theatre piece Desdemona, bringing an African dimension to the story of Shakespeare’s tragic heroine. The piece premiered in Vienna in the summer of 2011 and received its New York premiere at Lincoln Center that fall; its UK premiere was at the Barbican in London in the summer of 2012. The Guardian called it “a remarkable, challenging and bravely original new work.”
It was the experience of acting in Desdemona, she says, that led her to create the Damou (Dream) project, performed in London last year, in which she showed her skills as a storyteller, as well as a singer, with her version of stories from The Epic of Soundiata, dealing with events leading to the birth of Africa’s legendary ruler. These are stories that would traditionally be told by Mali’s griots—indeed, Traoré said she could only create the show because she has been learning from one of Mali’s finest female griots, the singer Bako Dagnon.
Rokia Traoré is indeed a remarkable artist, and it is difficult to think of anyone else who can switch from ancient Malian culture to acting and then to African rock and roll. She will be touring Europe in May, performing in Desdemona in Amsterdam and Naples in June, then returning to Europe at the end of June for what promises to be a memorable treatment of the new songs from Beautiful Africa during a run of summer festivals, including Glastonbury and Roskilde.