Words by Rose Skelton
We have come to expect a lot from young Malian pop-rock singer Rokia Traoré, who surprised the world with her deeply traditional 2003 album Bowmboï, and then knocked us for six with her 2009 release Tchamantché, a rocky, rootsy interplay of Malian tradition and modernity. Beautiful Africa is as rich and exciting as anything she has made before, and benefits from a noticeable maturity. The dreamy guitar riffs of her last album are still there, with the lead melodies often spelled out by ngoni as they were in her previous albums, but Rokia’s voice seems more sure of itself as it soars from one style to another.
This shift in gear was perhaps helped by the fact she has been branching out into acting, appearing last year in the stage production Desdemona, the re-imagined story of the Shakespearean character directed by Peter Sellars. Each track on Beautiful Africa is a world in itself, changing pace rapidly, leading the listener through varying tones and rhythms, but always held together by Rokia’s voice, which knows when to stand back and when to take control. ‘Sikey’ is notable for the vocal interplay, with Rokia’s narration of a story punctuated by the interjections of her two backing singers. The nine-minute long ‘N’Téri’ is a stage-show in itself, the ngoni plucking a continuous line as Rokia whispers and trills a tale. ‘Ka Moun Kè’ rolls along, with a sparse, reverberating guitar line supporting a chorus of voices, a staccato ngoni and, of course, Rokia’s voice – impassioned, expressive and gentle.
It really doesn’t get much better than this in today’s African music. Rokia’s work – both recorded and live – is exciting, surprising and always perfectly executed. Many of her songs slip into French and English and, though this sometimes can be awkward, it gives an overarching feeling that this music belongs not just to Africa, but to the world. We should consider ourselves very, very lucky.
TRACK TO TRY: Lalla
(on Nonesuch Records)