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Inheriting a tradition.

Rising world-music star Rokia Traore made her first tour of the United States this past summer. The Women's Review asked her to comment on her music and her international success. Angel Romero of describes the genesis and unique quality of Traore's music.

The West African country of Mali is known for its jelis (oral historians) and the traditions of kora and bala, which are, respectively, the venerable 21-string harp and the West African xylophone. Both instruments, together with the ngoni (banjo) are the instruments used to accompany the jelis. But the jelis, whose patrons are the Malian noble families, are more than just musicians: they use music and sometimes oratory to preserve and sustain a consciousness of a past that stretches back to the thirteenth century, when the Manding king Sunjata Keita consolidated the vast Empire of Mali, covering much of West Africa.

The Malian singer Rokia Traore is in her twenties. In a very short period she has become identified as the voice of the new generation of African artists; as a column in Billboard magazine (15 July 2000) put it, she is "a woman who is quietly but quest-fully altering the face of African music."

Though it is steeped in tradition, Traore's music is thoroughly integrated into a contemporary sound, thanks to her upbringing in a multicultural environment. Unlike many other Malian singers, she does not come from the jeli caste, but rather from the class sponsoring them. Her father was a diplomat, and so she lived in many different places away from Mali: Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France and Belgium. As a result, she has managed to integrate the atmospheres of great many places into her recordings. Her original career choice was the social sciences. Yet once she decided to become an artist instead, the great Malian guitarist, singer and sound engineer All Farka Toure became her mentor. Toure is probably best known for his Malian blues collaborations with US guitarist Ry Cooder. He runs one f the few recording studios in Mali and records the work of many of the new, young, innovative artists in the country.

Listening to Rokia Traore's new CD, Wanita, for the first time, one immediately mows it is from Mali, yet it does not sound like any other music from there. The sound of the jelis is loud: they sing in front of large crowds at celebrations, baptisms and marriages, and before the age of microphones they had to make themselves heard by way of intense volume. And, many of the Malian women singers currently known to US listeners (for example, Kandia Kouyate and Oumou Sangare) produce very powerful sounds, and also use amplified electric instruments and heavy percussion in their bands. Compared to theirs, Traore's sound is pure and passionate, her vocals melodious and accessible, her textures more intricate. Though she honors revered Malian singers like Ami Koita and Fanta Damba-both of whom have yet to be discovered by American audiences-Traore decided to innovate within traditional Malian sound in order to express her own concepts.

While her ensemble, uses mostly acoustic, traditional instruments-except for an added electric bass on a few songs-it's Traore's voice that departs from established norms in contemporary Malian popular music. Her singing style is flawless and airy, with perfect, minimal arrangements: performers like Cassandra Wilson or Peru's Suzanne Baca come to mind.

Producing Wanita was difficult for Traore. Having to choose musicians open to her interpretations and unorthodox mixes was one hurdle; finding them for touring was yet another, since most musicians come from certain ethnic backgrounds and are unwilling to mix.

Traore's upbringing as a modern woman has made her a symbol for the younger generation of African women, and in fact she is only now coming to terms with a number of issues in today's Malian society, where traditional ways are slowly crumbling, and noble families often find themselves poverty-stricken. The themes of the songs she writes touch the intersections of old and new ways-for example, polygamy and female emancipation. Polygamy is common in Africa, and in her song "Mouso niyalen" Traore urges men to leave it behind. The place for man, she sings, is with just one wife so they can grow old together. In "Souba" she rejects the allure of material possessions, in favor of a life full of respect for others. Forget gold or silver, she sings, I'd rather have harmony among neighbors.

A few hard-core world music fans heard Rokia Traore first on a Radio France International compilation CD-she was the winner of the Decouvertes award-and hunted down her subsequent CD, Mouneissa, which was never distributed outside Europe. On Wanita, which is internationally distributed, she has created timeless, authentic music, without blindly following the trends of electronic amplification and the rejection of traditional instruments as old-fashioned, and without falling into the trap of overproduction. Those who have seen her perform have been enthralled by her elegance, strength and delicate, intimate, yet relaxed voice. Her "discovery" is well under way.

ANGEL ROMERO writes for the comprehensive world-music web site

Reprinted with permission from

Music always has been in the back of my mind. As a kid I was. always trying to sing as a Tina Turner or a Bruce Springsteen. Now, what's been happening since the beginning of my professional career in 1997 is as if the dream came true. It is fantastic to share with the public some kind of emotions you can only share through music, when communication is limited by the language. In other words, I am glad that the music I do very spontaneously, using instruments from my native country's tradition, has such an international public and positive response. On top of that I am honored to present some aspects of our traditions and the modernity of Africa that some people might not know.

The music I play links a special orchestration of traditional instruments, my arrangements and my lyrics. Regarding my choice of the instruments, I simply loved the sound of all these unique traditional instruments and wanted to try to get them to participate in a global sound and color, even though they are not usually played together in Mali.

My arrangements are certainly inspired by the different musical environments I have experienced, in Mali and abroad when I was young I listened to jazz, classical, blues and rock; also, being abroad, increased my interest in classical music from Mali. My lyrics are inspired by everyday life: family, friends, neighbors, social life in general, pride, honor, will. The heart, the soul, the sound are the expression in musical notes of my world.

I always have been attracted by different repertoires. My father was listening to jazz and classical music while my elder brother was a big fan of rock from the l970s and some great folk singers. A few I listen to and am influenced by: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Tina Turner, Fanta Damba, Kandia Kouyate, Joe Cocker, Bruce Springsteen. I recently discovered smashing musicians and composers like Joe Zawinul, one of the former leaders of Weather Report, who clearly has very African feelings. Also the Kronos Quartet. There are so many names and musicians I would like to pay tribute to, but on the whole I think that they impress me by their remarkable and singular sense of sound and composition and arrangement, plus the energy they transmit through music.

In Mali, the biggest part of our thoughts is based on an oral tradition with its stories and its myths. Everyday social life is intense. An important part of the day is spent in talking to each other and visiting each other. I do not think I ever really intellectualize anything. I just say in my lyrics the thoughts that have matured in my mind, observing people in my country and the way society changes or does not change in certain aspects. My lyrics are certainly very "socially grounded" because I try to retain what everyday life dictates, how my experiences put to the test my will, and I always think about what could really be improved in our behaviors and habits by each of us, for each of us.

I do not exactly know what I will do in the future but I know I still have some resources to exploit with the traditional instruments I am currently using. And I would love to work with other musicians and composers who have other musical backgrounds.

I am glad to see that people from the United States, France, Germany, Japan, and Mali are sensitive to my music. If this leads them to think about my lyrics, to learn more about the foreigner, then great! Music belongs to everyone.

Translations by Thomas Weil
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Author:Romero, Angel
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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