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Rokia Traore: "A Star of the First Magnitude"

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Wednesday November 27, 2013

From Oakland Local

Oakulture: Welcome to Alta California, Elephant Man Jooks Oakland, Rokia Traore Wows SF, Chinyakare Ensemble “Zims” Berkeley.
By: Eric K Arnold

Africa has gifted the world with some amazing female vocalists, from Miriam Makleba to Anjelique Kidjo to Oumou Sangare. To that list, you can add Rokia Traore, a Malian songstress who’s not just among the best female vocalists in Africa right now, but among the best vocalists in the world, period. Traore’s style combines experimental excursions into tonal harmonies a la Zap Mama with the powerful resonance of an Adele, topping it off with folkloric inflections that draw from Mali’s storied griot tradition. It’s a powerful combo, in a slight yet lovely package.

Her recent show at SF’s Nourse Theater was a breakout performance, establishing Traore as a star of the first magnitude. It’s a measure of her talent that she played guitar on the first three songs – a bold move that sent a powerful message of gender equality. Guitar is usually a male-dominated instrument, yet here Traore was claiming it as her birthright, which it is: Malian music is often said to be the root of the blues, as well as rock, reggae, funk, and jazz.

Performing songs from her new album, Beautiful Africa, Traore proved to be a stylistic virtuoso. There’s always a strong sense of tradition in her music, but it was truly impressive to see her fuse traditional African rhythmic templates on top of Westernized forms without tilting too far in the latter direction. Malian music thrives on trance-inducing, hypnotic grooves, around which Traore’s voice deftly ambled, adding just the right amount of yaw – some trilling here, a vibrato there, jumping a key or octave when necessary, setting the stage for her ace in the hole, a deep-throated sustain which she could probably keep up for a week, if she had to.

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