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The Boston Phoenix African queen

Malian newcomer Rokia Traoré

By Banning Eyre

AUGUST 14, 2000:  Mali has given the world more than its share of great male recording artists, with Ali Farka Toure, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, and Habib Koite topping the list. But in Bamako, the capital of this poor, dry West African nation, women singers dominate the airwaves and the busy cassette stalls. Oumou Sangare, Nahawa Doumbia, and Kandia Kouyate -- all female Malian singers with international releases -- tell but a fraction of the story. Hosts of other beloved Malian divas remain unknown in the US, mostly because the wizards of international Afropop consider their music too traditionally rooted for foreign ears.

Enter Rokia Traoré, young, foreign-educated, not overly tied to any particular ethnic tradition, and yet -- like all Mali's successful musicians -- deeply in touch with her country's rich cultural assets. Traoré's second release, Wanita (Indigo), has been hailed around the world as breakthrough recording, and this summer the new darling of Malian traditional pop has mounted her first U.S. tour.

Wanita's opening track, "Kanan Neni" ("Don't Insult Me"), begins with acoustic guitar, bass, and African lute and calabash coiling slyly around a loping rhythm. Each sound massages the groove from a different angle, creating a mysterious internal space into which Traoré's sweet, vulnerable, almost quivering voice enters gracefully. The songs set the tone for this textured, moody, acoustic recording. Traoré's subtlety and confidence evoke other Malian stars, notably Wassoulou queen Oumou Sangare. But Traoré's willingness to combine elements from diverse traditions -- the clip-clop of the calabash used in the music of Mali's northern desert, the spike lute (ngoni) and large harp (kora) of the Manding griots in the south, and the deep, buzzing pentatonic xylophone (balafon) of Traoré's own Bambara people -- mark her as part of a new breed of pan-Malian musician who uses ethnic styles to artistic ends.

"I listened to lots of music before starting to create my own," Traoré explains over the phone from Paris, "including foreign music, rock, jazz, blues, classical music. But I did not want to make music to re-create what I had already heard. I knew that what I really loved was the sound of the traditional, acoustic instruments." That's what comes through on Wanita's 11 delicately crafted songs. No sign of rock and jazz here. Traoré's penchant for close vocal harmonies is, however, decidedly un-Malian. And it's just the sort of understated touch that makes her music accessible outside the African continent.

Distinguishing herself from other Malian singers who have taken up the cause of women in Africa, Traoré says these artists either celebrate women in a sentimental way or else take pity on them. "I don't feel sorry for women. I declare the rights of women." She acknowledges the paradox of a culture that makes a show of respecting women but does little to empower them. "There is again this real gap between a woman's status in the family and her place in decision making. This tells a lot about the condition of women in Mali. The ideal wife in Mali works and appears powerful but will never declare her will and wishes."

Nowhere is this paradox more pronounced than in the realm of Mali's singing women stars -- especially the regal, blustery griot singers like Kandia Kouyate and Ami Koita. "It's true that we are proud of them and we admire them. But people believe that singers are not serious. No family really desires to have their daughter become a singer. It's difficult to explain how socially powerful and rich men behave. They view women singers as social objects they can amuse themselves with."

In "Mancipera," Traoré takes on the subject of marriage. "It's the husband who makes the marriage work [or not work]," she says. "The woman is told what exactly she can and cannot do. But nothing is told to the man. He comes and goes when he likes. And instead of becoming more happy, the woman can become more and more sad, more and more fat, less and less beautiful. Times have changed, and now we talk about emancipation. People must change also. And they will, because women are working and studying more and more. So the way women live and work with their husbands will change inevitably." Adding weight to this slowly swinging anthem, Malian folksinger Boubacar "Kar Kar" Traoré (no relation) intertwines Rokia's gentle alto with his own whispery tenor. Voices of innocence and experience come together.

The dialogue between old and new culture is a constant in Malian and, to some extent, all African music. This conversation moves along briskly in Rokia Traoré's work, but what singles her out is the music itself: elegant, serene, and astonishingly mature for a twentysomething new kid on the world-music block.

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