“Rokia Traoré will sing for those lucky enough to gain entry into paradise.” —Daily Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg)
Rising West African star
stuns listeners with the tenderness and power of her voice, creating a sound that’s utterly contemporary yet deeply rooted in the soil of her homeland. “With performances that are as mesmerizing as the delicate rhythms of her albums, Traoré has joined an elite club of superstars” (Toronto Sun). Hard on the heels of her internationally acclaimed release, Bowmboï, she visits the Twin Cities with an eight-member ensemble playing traditional acoustic instruments of Mali on Sunday, October 10, 7 pm, at the Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Avenue South, Minneapolis.
While Mali has historically made little room for women songwriters, Rokia Traoré has established herself as one of the most important artists on the international music scene. Both Wanita, released in 2000, and her 1998 debut, Mouneissa, are among the best-selling world music albums in Europe. Having been mentored by African blues legend Ali Farka Touré, she draws on a broad range of influences that include Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, and Tina Turner, among many others. She employs traditional instruments to render her bold, original songs, creating a sound that is timeless and multicultural. As a songwriter, singer, and live performer, Traoré continues to earn tremendous critical acclaim worldwide. Jon Pareles of The New York Times included Wanita among his top ten albums in 2001’s “The Year in Pop and Jazz.”
Bowmboï breathtakingly transcends Traoré’s previous achievements as she strikes a perfect pose between the roots of traditional African music and her own thoroughly modern outlook on the world. Bowmboï is characterized by a bold and cliché-free approach that will confound those looking for easy categories. Much of Bowmboï _was recorded in Mali on traditional instruments. And yet it is not a traditional album. Traoré also traveled to San Francisco to record two tracks with the world-class strings of the Kronos Quartet. And yet _Bowmboï is not a fusion album. Traoré’s rise through the world music ranks from promising newcomer to full-fledged star has been a meteoric one. Born into a prominent Malian family—her father was a diplomat—she absorbed different cultures beginning at a young age through travel in the U.S., the Middle East, and Europe.
Immersed in a rich and varied musical environment, she sang in high school and joined various bands. Later she appeared on Malian TV, performing her first compositions with just voice and her guitar. The Bamana (Bambara) ethnic group of which she is part does not impose the same strict restriction on singing in public that some other groups practice.
Traoré began singing professionally in 1996, at the age of 22. The following year, she won the Radio France Internationale prize as ‘African discovery of the year.’ Her revelatory debut album, Mouneïssa, received widespread acclaim. Wanita, released in 2000, was voted album of the year in the Folk Roots annual poll. She reinforced the positive impression with a spectacular appearance at WOMAD that summer that stole the weekend. Now three years later she’s raised the bar again with Bowmboï. Co-produced by Traoré and Thomas Weill, many of her now familiar trademarks are in place, such as the innovative blending of instruments not usually heard together in African music, notably the ngoni and balaba (a large balafon from the Beledougou region, her ancestral home).
All 10 songs on the album are performed in her native Bamana tongue. The broad-ranging themes include love songs “about the fragility of our relationships,” highly personal songs “that ask questions and search for answers,” and songs that reflect social concern, for example, the plight of children. Childhood is an important topic that she feels strongly about. “I wanted to talk about this period as the basis of every human being’s life.” She continues, “There are no universal rights for people, no level platform from which we all start and so our whole lives are linked in one way or another to our childhood environments.”
Several songs on Bowmboï and most of her previous album Wanita deal with the position of women in modern African society. “We have a lot of freedoms our mothers didn’t have,” Traoré admits. “But women have to be brave to fight for their rights. You need courage. So a lot of my songs pay tribute to strong women.” To many, this has made Traoré a role model. Yet not everybody is ready to accept her forthright attitude. “I’m saying stand up and you can be free,” she says. “But some people don’t like that. They want their stars to have bleached skin and wear lots of make-up and drive around in big cars. And they’re not going to get that from me.”
Tickets for Rokia Traoré are $25 ($20 Walker members) and are available by phone at the Walker box office, 612.375.7622; or visit www.walkerart.org/tickets/ or www.thecedar.org.