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A Whole New World for Rokia Traoré

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Monday April 19, 2010

(From The London Evening Standard)

By: David Smyth
Published: April 16, 2010

The problem with world music is the depth of knowledge required even at entry level. If you don’t know your n’gonis from your balafons, and can speak not a word of Bambara or Songhay, the idea of investing in that WOMAD ticket can seem just a bit too intimidating.

I doubt if I could tell my Ali Farka Touré from my elbow either, but I know what I like. Now Rokia Traoré is going out of her way to win over us ignorant pop lovers with a smoky, sophisticated, beautiful album that would appeal even if you couldn’t place her Mali home on the map.

The 36-year-old singer-guitarist is embarking on a UK tour that takes in Camden rock venue Koko, where she’ll be joined by Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the English guitar band who made a name for themselves when it was revealed that their Mercury-nominated second album, Twice Born Men, was recorded in a shed. “We are from different places but we work in the same spirit of musical discovery,” Traoré, serious and philosophical, tells me in her thick French accent.

The rock connection continues with her latest album, Tchamantché, which sees her playing a bluesy Gretsch guitar in preference to the conventional Malian instrumentation that dominated her previous three releases. It also features human beatboxing and a sparse, stunning cover of Billie Holiday‘s The Man I Love. She’s a softer singer than her more traditional compatriots, and her hushed, intricate sound makes for perfect late- night listening. If her Bambara and French lyrics still seem impenetrable, they’re helpfully translated into English in the sleeve notes.

This rootless experimentalist is uniquely placed to capitalise on the gradual encroachment of world music into our regular listening habits, which began with George Harrison shoehorning sitars onto Beatles albums and continues today with Damon Albarn featuring a Lebanese orchestra alongside Lou Reed and De La Soul on the latest Gorillaz album. Traoré‘s father was a diplomat, meaning she has always been an international wanderer, spending her childhood in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, New York and Brussels, where she studied sociology at university while concurrently launching her music career. Today she spends half her year in Amiens, France, and the other half in Mali’s capital, Bamako.

Such a background places her outside Mali’s griot tradition of musical skills passed down through generations but leaves her equally removed from the European pop world. “As a teenager I didn’t like always feeling an outsider,” she says. “But now I like that I don’t have to try to fit in.”

Traoré is especially keen to widen her appeal. “The world music categorisation is a kind of jail. You feel as if you’re not allowed to do anything that touches on jazz or pop music. It’s not a question of money or popularity but of artistic progress. I have a lot of ideas and I want to keep moving.”

She doesn’t rule out a future collaboration with a big Western name but it would have to be on her terms. “Anyone who worked with me would have to be very patient because I know exactly what I want,” she insists. Past link-ups, with experimental classical group The Kronos Quartet on her third album, and with the opera director Peter Sellars at a Mozart festival, demonstrate a complex musical mind that is unafraid of big challenges.

After this tour she resumes her focus on her Fondation Passerelle (Footbridge Foundation), a small organisation that she has set up to help young adults in Mali start out in the music business. It doesn’t look as if there will be another album for a few years. In the meantime, Tchamantché, a wonderful work by a woman who doesn’t belong, deserves to belong in every home.

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