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The Cosmopolitan Sound of Mademoiselle Traore


By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


I am captivated, enchanted and entranced! Rokia, a baldheaded Black woman in an age of weaves, extensions and perms, or at least, shoulder-length dreadlocks. She hardly looks like a superstar; of slight built and intense gaze. Seldom a coy whisper or a sexy come hither; her lyrics are declarations, prayers, anthems, meditations. But no mindless club hits here.

It’s racist rot to assume that I dig Rokia's music because I am Black. I dig it because it is beautiful. There’s stuff that is Black that I don’t dig. But then again there is something about this music coming out of Mali, especially modern music out of Mali.


Here, I am thinking about Issa Bagayogo and Baboucar Traoré, and Ali Farka Toure, and, of course, Salif Keita, and the list could be extended, but as excellent as all of them are, they are not the occasion. What is haunting me is this stunning woman whose standard is plain, unadorned, beauty.


“We have a lot of freedoms our mothers didn’t have, 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. I’m saying stand up and you can be free. 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.”


Plain beauty. Rokia sings with only simple accompaniment. And whether fast or slow, exuberant or plangent, she communicates with a profound intensity that is both admirable and astounding.

What Rokia does with her voice is often subtle — a graceful glissando, a slight vibrato here, a held note that grows in volume, or there she toughens the sound to express fierce determination:


 "I’m not based on power and volume; I’m looking in a totally different direction."


Her control of her instrument. Her abandon to the spirit of the moment. Paradoxical.


“Between the second album and this record, I took singing lessons and a music theory class. I studied vocal techniques and that’s definitely given my singing more confidence, but the spirit you hear in the music is not about technique or what I do on the record. It’s because of what I have lived through.”


Born in 1974, the daughter of a Malian diplomat, Rokia spent her early years on the road, and hence, was often an alien in non-African and non-Third World environs:


"When I was a child and a teenager, I was very often sad, but at the same time, that built my personality. I liked to stay alone and just listen to music, sometimes dreaming that I am a singer and onstage and people are listening to me. When I was sad, I just had to take a pen and a piece of paper and write about why I’m sad or why I don’t understand people’s attitudes around me. That was a kind of curative for me, to think I am not alone."


And then, as a young adult, Rokia returned to Mali, where she studied music, initially tutored by Ali Farka Toure. Toure is often considered the grandmaster of Malian blues; Rokia describes him as “both a moral and professional guide in my first steps”.


Rokia’s debut was auspicious. She won several awards and many critics were enchanted by Wanita, her second album. Nevertheless, it is Bowmboï, her third album, that is the Sirius of her universe. Bowmboï is the one where all who do not know her should begin. Why? Because here her splendour is fully realized. Addressing both the world and Mali, she is a rooster: wake up, home and world.



On Bowmboï she sings her insightful and poetic lyrics solely in her native tongue, Bamana. Using only acoustic instruments, Rokia produces magical results.


The world hears her Malian tongue, while fellow Malians are challenged by her worldview. To everyone, she is different.

On the one hand, she is grounded in her African culture. “Musicians are proud to go abroad and record," she says. "I was happy to do the opposite. I wanted to show you can record an international album in Mali and bring some work to the people back home. We were recording with the noises of the street and kids playing all round us because the studio wasn’t finished yet. It was very atmospheric.”


On the other hand, she is bringing new ideas to an old culture while bringing ancient ideas to the new world. Her contradictions are so interesting, so beautiful. "My way of thinking today is totally based on the fact that I grew up in different places and realized very early that diversity exists."


"Kôté Don" is her musical manifesto:


Young people of the city
Smart young girls
This song is for you
You who are everything that is dynamic
Let us rejoice
Let’s dance the kôté
Youth will pass
So make the most of it

My joie de vivre is taken for shamelessness
My thirst for change for pretension
Faced with my curiosity, my quest for the new
Conservative minds spread slander
And question everything that
My times are about
But don’t listen to malicious gossip
It would be a waste of time
Youth is ephemeral
Let’s celebrate and dance the kôté

Ever changing I dislike what is rigid, set
What “is” without knowing why
All that is hierachial, static
I respect my ancestors
But tradition is not infallible
It is not absolute
Time passes, we all change
Nothing remains the same

This is for you, young people
Let’s dance the kôté

Let’s make the most of our time. Let’s celebrate

From philosophy to science
Biology to history
I master the knowledge transmitted to me
The elders reproach me for my curiosity
But it is true that I am the tightrope walker
Perched high on a wire
Overlooking disparity:
The encounter between the culture of my ancestors
Where knowledge is transmitted in secret
Where the unsaid is fundamental
Since the word is sacred:
And that of my modern education
Where nothing that is thought is inexpressible.


Rokia’s magic is that regardless of the circumstance she adeptly infuses her spirit into whatever is the particular environment.

This adaptability is a cultural kernel of what some of us call the African Aesthetic. And defiantly, Rokia insists this is not a commercial contrivance, not some fashionable fusion, but instead a reflection of global awareness grounded in a specific ethnic context, which in this case is acoustic Malian music.


"I feel more inspired by acoustic and traditional instruments. I know their colors, and I feel comfortable with them. Putting them together to create a unique orchestration serves my moods. I want to show that with traditional and acoustic instruments you could do something different."



Reflecting on one of the songs on Bowmboï, Rokia suggests, "It’s just about diversity and how tolerant we have to be to be able to live with the others around us…. There is no perfect culture. The limit of the world is not the limit of our frontiers. We have to work on ourselves to understand and accept that we are not ‘the best.’ We have to realize we need ‘the other’ [in order] to be someone ourselves. I think everybody knows that without tolerance, nothing is possible. It’s easy to think and easy to speak about it, but not easy at all to be it in everyday life."


Everyday in life to give, to share; to accept different others; to do what we can to make life better and more beautiful than when we arrived on earth.


Rokia, your example shines.

I love Aster Aweke of Ethiopia, will always fawn over Miriam Makeba of South Africa, but, right now, the voice that has my ear is Rokia Traoré.


Rokia on Rokia:

If I’d been born 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have known American or European music, but the world we live in today means you pick up on all these other sounds and they’re now part of me. I make music as someone who has listened to jazz, classical, rock and pop - everyone from Louis Armstrong to Serge Gainsbourg, as well as to the African griots.


Everywhere you look there are artists being produced and arranged by their labels to try and fit some commercial demand. I wanted to get back to the spirit I had before I was a professional musician - humility, tolerance and simplicity. Those are the underlying themes. I wanted to stay simple and stay moral and not believe my own hype.

For more information, visit www.rokiatraore.net

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

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