As beautiful, striking and unadorned as the shaven-headed picture on its cover, Rokia’s fourth album confirmed her as Africa’s boldest and most experimental diva. On 2003’s Bowmboï she had collaborated on several tracks with the Kronos Quartet, but the follow-up was different again. Boasting a trembling introspection, masterful understatement and graceful arrangements unlike almost anything else in Malian music, it’s a record built around the resonant but subtle thrum of her Gretsch guitar, her bluesy lines underpinned by classical western harp and African ngoni to create an elegantly baroque and sculpted setting, hauntingly spare and with the scrape of every string heard in pin-dropping clarity.
Yet for all the instrumental deftness, Tchamantché is primarily a showcase for Rokia’s quietly compelling voice, an instrument that on stage can wail with the best but here is used with a more personal and nuanced sensibility. That said, the emotional range of her singing is impressive. From yearning vibrato to smouldering solemnity, sometimes feathered and breathy and sometimes more rousing and assertive, there’s an intensity and genuine sense of gravitas as she sings in Bamana, French and, in one conspicuous case, accented English on a gorgeous version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’. Rokia’s cosmopolitan upbringing (her father was a diplomat so she spent much of her childhood travelling outside Mali) has gifted her a perspective that combines both African tradition and Western modernity, and nowhere is the duality more potently realised than on Tchamantché, which won her the Best Artist category in the first Songlines Music Awards in 2009.