A WHOLE NEW WORLD; Rokia Traore Is Not Only Putting Mali on the Map, She's Bringing Her Seductive Brand of Crossover African Music to a More Mainstream Audience

The Evening Standard (London, England), April 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

A WHOLE NEW WORLD; Rokia Traore Is Not Only Putting Mali on the Map, She's Bringing Her Seductive Brand of Crossover African Music to a More Mainstream Audience


Byline: David Smyth SOUND CHECK

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 Toure from my elbow either, but I know what I like. Now Rokia Traore 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," Traore, serious and philosophical, tells me in her thick French accent.

The rock connection continues with her latest album, Tchamantche, 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 latenight 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. Traore'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. …

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