Sunday, August 30, 2009

2004 : 12 "Sara" by Rokia Traorï

To understand why Rokia Traoré is one the most important and significant artists of the Aughts, it's crucial to know a little something about who she is and where she comes from.

Ms. Traoré is from Mali, the village of Kolokani, born into the Bamana tribe. The caste to which her family belongs discourages music making. Furthermore, in two-plus years of living in West Africa, I never saw a woman play an instrument. It is unusual for a female to play a guitar and sing; most female lead singers are of the Miriam Makeba, Oumou Sangare, and Cesaria Evora chanteuse / diva style. While her father was stationed abroad as a diplomat, Ms. Traoré traveled to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France and Belgium, but attended both lyceé and university in Mali, where she began performing her own songs on acoustic guitar. She soon learned to play the ngoni (lute) and balafon, as well as incorporate complex vocal harmonies in her songs, which is again atypical for Malian music.

Her first album, Mouneïssa was released in 1997, and Wanita in 2000. Both albums on Label Bleu would strike even a seasoned African music aficionado as unique because of the way in which she isolates and juxtaposes traditional Malian instruments in small groupings that resemble a chamber ensemble. This clearly isnt mbalax, or afrobeat, or Wassalou, or jali praise songs, or toureg. "I'm not a Malian traditional singer", she says, "I can't say what style I am". Despite the rich polyphony of the vocals, and the counterpoint of the instrumentation, there is an airiness, a sense of letting the sounds breathe and have space to flex, that distinguishes Ms. Traoré's music from other African music styles and singers. She writes and arranges all of the music herself.

Her outspoken lyrics regarding the role and oppression of women in West African society has made her a bit of an outcast in her native Mali. She has addressed such sensitive and controversial topics such as polygamy, forced marriage, female circumcision, and gender inequalities in education, while at the same time, singing the praises of Malian families, and the religious tradition.

On the song "Kôté Don," she sings in her native Bamana

Ever changing, I dislike what is rigid, set
What "is" without knowing why
All that is hierarchical, static
I respect my ancestors,
But tradition is not infallible
It is not absolute
Time passes, we all change
Nothing remains the same.
This is for you, young people,
Let's dance the kôté.

In 2006, Ms. Traoré was involved in writing and performing a new work for the New Crowned Hope festival, staged by the maverick director Peter Sellars, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birthday. Her typically unconventional work (an opera) imagined that Mozart was born as a griot, a musician by birth, back in the time of the great Thirteenth century ruler Soundiata Keita, whose Mande empire was centered in what is now Mali. The instrumentation included traditional West African instruments, guitar and bass, violin and clarinet.

This track is from her third album, Bowmboï.

See also: Ali Farka Touré Savane (Nonesuch, 2006)

Darren DeMonsi

Listen: Rokia Traoré >> "Sara"

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