Songlines Music Awards Winner

Best Artist: Rokia Traoré

Album: Tchamantche (Nonesuch)

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The organisers of Timitar, one of Africa’s biggest festivals, got it right when they booked a suite for Rokia Traoré in Agadir’s Palais des Roses. Its Moorish architecture, crystalline fountains and intricate mosaics from Fes are echoes of a glorious pan-African past the Malian singer is putting heart and soul into resurrecting.

“I’ve felt at home ever since I set foot in Morocco for the first time a few weeks ago,” she explains as she gracefully reclines in her simple, all-white cotton ensemble. Behind, her one-year-old son (“Adam Abraham Said,” Rokia proudly enumerates) toddles between the desert-red columns and dark furniture inlaid with Berber symbols. Her partner-manager, the hardnosed Thomas Weill, busies himself with last-minute details for the evening concert in Agadir’s Place Al Amal. The Frenchman makes no compromises when it comes to concerts by his Pygmalion. That night’s open-air performance before more than 100,000 spectators has to be sound and security-perfect.

“It’s all so familiar,” resumes Rokia. “My grandfather was a Moor from the Mali-Mauritania border. So many people resemble him in Agadir. Someone called me ‘Rohaya’ the other day – a Muslim name that’s become Rokia at home. And the pentatonic rhythms the Berbers play here in the south of Morocco are not so far from what we have in West Africa.”

There is a quiet confidence and steel behind the 34-year-old’s trademark smile. Five years after the release of her third album Bowmboi, this diplomat’s daughter is back on the road again with the challenging album Tchamantche. As a result, 2008 has become a watershed year and the culmination of five years of exploration. Five years that has taken her far from the traditional Bambana music she exported worldwide with her first three albums. Her recent peregrinations include sharing the stage with the likes of Dianne Reeves and Fontella Bass in the play Billie and Me (on the life of Billie Holiday); contributing to a Peter Sellars work for Mozart’s 250th anniversary (where the Salzburg composer is a griot under the 13th century reign of the Mande empire founder, Soundiata Keita). And, most importantly, the birth of her son.

“So many important things happened to me since 2003,” she says. “I’m not conscious of why I’m doing what I’m doing and I’ll only be able to analyse it all in a few years time. But one thing’s for sure – I wanted to make a blues-rock album that fed on styles I enjoyed before my professional career began.”

Whilst growing up, Rokia enjoyed a diversity of musical sources, often drawing from the large vinyl collections her father and older brother stocked. Her father used to be a talented amateur saxophonist in the Kati National Orchestra, 15km from Bamako, before plunging into a diplomatic career that took him and his family round the world. “He continued to stack up his vinyl collection and I was always impressed by the blues and rock albums we listened to.”

 “It would have been difficult for me to start my career without music from my roots, however,” Rokia affirms. “I wanted to put into practice what I learnt orally from my parents and grandparents during the short stays in my village of Kolokani. Working in a traditional acoustic repertoire allowed me to know where I came from.”

“Nevertheless, after the third album I felt the job was done; I was free. I could be somebody I wanted to be. I could now return to music that’s closer to me and that I feel comfortable with. That gave birth to Tchamantche which means ‘the point in the middle’ or ‘balance’ in Bambana.”

It has been an audacious decision, nonetheless. With worldwide sales topping 300,000 worldwide for Bowmboi alone, many in the music industry urged her to continue riding out the traditional-acoustic niche she has carved for herself.

“It took two years to assemble all the elements for this album. I wanted a 60-70s sound and everyone was saying I was courting disaster: a world music artist who wants to change is doomed to catastrophe. And then I discovered Phil Brown.”

It was Brown’s work with Portishead singer Beth Gibbons that most impressed Rokia. The former sound engineer for Robert Plant and Bob Marley just happened to be free and everything fell into place in the space of a fortnight: “He gave me a sound that was close to the listener but, at the same time, it wasn’t a neutered, clean sound.”

Rokia’s use of the Gretsch guitar underlines the retro atmosphere that flits in and out of the album’s ten tracks. Created by rockabilly icon Chet Atkins and and then popularised by George Harrison, Tchamantche is built around this ingenious split-dual-coil pickup guitar (which allows for two separate audio signals – one for the bass strings and one for treble). And it works beautifully, melding seamlessly with the ngoni on the classic song ‘The Man I Love,’ for example.

“That was another song that had people rolling their eyes and warning me that I was not a jazz singer,” Rokia concedes. “But I needed to do it, it was so important to put in something that was the fruit of my experience in the Billie Holiday play. Of course, I had to change the song, make it my own. Even if I’m close to African-American culture, I am not from their world. I’m this part of them they left behind in Africa.”

Rokia TraoréRokia paid as much attention to the lyrical contents of Tchamantche as she did to the technical and musical sides. Most of the songs are intimate reflections of the soul and the heart. But the singer does not shy away from delicate political and social topics. The melancholic opener ‘Dounia’ calls on Malians to remember their glorious past. ‘Tounka’ denounces the fact that Africa’s riches only attract war and famine; and that the African exodus to the West, is an illusion since France and Spain are “the source[s] of suffering,” and salt water graves await many. It’s while discussing these songs that Rokia is at her most impassioned: “European leaders have no idea of the degree of poverty that is pushing millions of Africans to seek their El Dorado in the West. The problem is we Africans are lost between what we used to be before and during the contact with the white colonisers, and what we are supposed to be after the end of colonisation. We need to know more about our pre-colonial existence. We’ve become disarticulated, dismembered because the history we’ve learnt has been imposed from outside. We are still looking for an identity, which is making us vulnerable to another form of colonisation, the colonisation by modern Western values. I could go on talking about this for days and days, it’s so rich and complicated. Amadou Ampate Bâ wrote about it beautifully, his works inspire me every day.”

The great Malian author Bâ’s explorations of West Africa’s oral traditions continue to impact the intellectual circles Rokia adheres to. He once said: “I am a graduate from the great university of the spoken word, taught under the shade of the baobab tree.” In songs like ‘Dounia’ and especially in her Peter Sellars collaboration, Rokia proves she is a worthy disciple of the great pan-Africanist. She might not have been born from a long line of hereditary musicians like griots must be, but the elegant vocalist continues to forge a reputation as a store-house of wisdom culled between Mali and the rest of the world.

© Daniel Brown, originally published in the October 2008 #55 issue of Songlines

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