When one gets lost in the West African country of Mali, the customary request for personal guidance is "Sila jira kan na," meaning "Show me the way." In the oppressively hot streets of the crowd- and dust-clogged capital city of Bamako, such entreaties from strangers are accepted as routine, since one market-swarmed street can resemble a dozen others. But in the sphere of contemporary Malian music, as in the world at large, the familiar appeal takes on a special poignancy, because the ability these days to offer confident direction is in increasingly short supply.
One of the finest records issued anywhere this year is "Wanita" (Indigo/Harmonia Mundi), the second album by Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. The follow-up to her much-praised 1998 debut, "Mouneissa" -- which sold over 40,000 copies in Europe--the new release expands on the softly poetic but intensely persevering messages of a woman who is quietly but questfully altering the face of African music. On a planet seemingly rife with self-righteous anger, racial antagonism, and inter-family tension, she calmly petitions on songs like "Souba" for humility and reconciliation; and as modern societies increasingly exploit women via popular degradation while idealizing male brutality, she warns on "N'Gotolen" against the dangers of building either a boom economy or a cultural pecking order based on contempt for others.
"There is a trend for selfish individualism also in Mali, even though we're very far away from the situation with the United States or Europe," she says, smoothly shifting from French to her mother tongue of Bamanan, with sudden bursts of English. "But I'm singing this way because,from speaking with the elders in Bamako, there has been and still is a big human interest in the worth of family members, neighbors, and colleagues in our offices or workplaces. I'm very conscious that, with all the money some people have these days in the U.S. and other countries, there is an aggressive individualism that has catastrophic consequences. You can feel that this misguided individualism is part of this violent process today in many homes and streets. I'm telling on other songs on the album that if you have a conscience about the importance of life and your proper individual life, you can avoid the violence and killing. But the fact that we're allowing it to happen is still baffling to me," she adds sadly.
In Mali,whose hierarchical musical traditions are dominated by either the ceremonial drama of the often haughty male griots and jelis (storytellers) or of the vociferous jelimusolu (female praise singers), Traoré's own music is uniquely informal, personable, and tender. Her intimate-sounding acoustic accompaniment consists of balafon (wooden xylophone), kora (a highly resonant harplike instrument with 21-25 strings), ngoni (lute), and an occassional electrified bass, plus the guitar and percussion Traore splits with others during the lovely solo and choral vocals (the latter sometimes overdubbed by Traoré). The music grips listeners as it glides into a rich nether realm between tribal chant and folk chanson, prodding the spirit with ideas that are bluesy in their convictions but almost Asian in their plucked airiness. And because the subject matter is so boldly expressed, its passionate tug soon grows addictive.
A member of the Bamanan ethnic group, Traoré is descended from the noble warriors of the Traoré clan, but she is free by custom from the caste-oriented constraints of other tribes (like the Maninka) that relegate public vocalizing to the social strata of nyamakala (craftsmen). Unlike the Maninka ranks from which sprang such national musical stars like the magisterial Salif Keita or such so-called "divas from Mali" as Kandia Kouyate, Ami Koita, and Oumou Sangare, Traoré's grounding in music was casual and spontaneous.
"Besides singers from Mali, my influences are jazz, classical, and rock," she says. "I like Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, and Joe Zawinul of Weather Report. And the bulk of the themes on the album are from everyday life--which means living with others, with its pros and cons. On songs like 'N'Gotolen' and 'Souba,' it just says that you need the others, the people that are in your background, and you should give them all the respect that they deserve."
As we struggle through a cusp-of-the-millenium era without progressive leaders, clamorous cowardice frequently passes for courage and selfishness for wisdom. In place of such decadent notions of what constitutes fit paths to fame and fortune, Traoré offers the title track of "Wanita," which she says is named for "an imaginary person, a sort of internal voice or conscience that gives me more and more will when the courage is not there anymore, so I will be able to get to the top of the tallest tree or mountain."
There's a potent sense of delicacy in the music that announces that human dignity must be a shared experience or it does not endure. And songs like "Yaafa N'Ma" (We must ask and grant pardon/All of you who count for me/Forgive me for to err is human") show great faith in the concepts that love is power and gentleness is strength.
"I have to think like this because I'm only 1 meter and 60 centimeters [5 fee, 4 inches] tall, and my weight is only 48 kilos [108 pounds]," she confesses with a laugh, "so I must believe this, or I would lose all the time."
Born Jan. 26, 1974, to diplomat Mamadou Dianguina Traoré and Oumou Traoré, his wife from the same clan, Rokia is the middle child of seven. She grew up playing beside the famed River Niger that bisects the city as it snakes its way through the central portion of West Africa, but she also spent portions of her youth in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France, and Belgium because of her father's diplomatic postings. She was first encouraged in her career by Jacques Szalay, director of the French Cultural Centre in Bamako, and then championed by Northern Mali guitarist/singer Ali Farka Touré during the period when she copped the Radio France Internationale prize as African Discovery of '97.
Of all the artists covered in this column over the past eight years, Rokia Traoré, who tours North America this summer, is one of hte most original and inspiring this writer has encountered. Her brave music on "Wanita" is a mighty sword of hope, as soft as a feather but as real as steel.
"The role I might play is dependent on everyone else who hears my music," she says. "I have messages to transmit in the music, but then it's your turn to feel it. The guidance we need, the essence or soul of life that we all seek, only becomes reality through our relationships with each other."
(2000 BillBoard Magazine)
"An album is a wall to penetrate," says Malian singer Rokia Traoré, immediately establishing herself as a marketing exec's nightmare. The wall called Bowmboï, Traoré's third CD, is built from sounds unfamiliar to Western ears and lyrics sung only in her native Bamana, even though she's also proficient in English, French, German and Italian. "I asked myself if it wouldn't be better to do something easier," she says. "Maybe if you do something a little pop, it's easier to promote. I had a choice. But I prefer this." Thank goodness. Bowmboï is mesmerizing, casting its spell with virtuoso vocals, rich textures and startling diversity. If her 2000 album Wanita was her breakthrough, winning Traoré worldwide acclaim as a rising star, then Bowmboï is a stamp of the 29-year-old's growing musical authority.
Traoré's sound may be exotic, ethereal, otherworldly — all words trotted out to praise the good in the impossibly broad "world-music" genre — but her themes are universal. Déli is a meditation on friendship. The title track — named for a lullaby Traoré's mother sang to her — wrestles with child poverty. She even deals with politics, but insists she could never work in that language. She thinks of the complexity of Mali's relations with the International Monetary Fund as well as her country's cotton farmers and how they suffer because Western nations subsidize their own. Such topics "are not poetic," she says. "I may be thinking about the situation between developed countries and undeveloped countries, but you will never hear those words in my songs." So, on Kèlè Mandi, whose haunting admonitions make it a highlight, Traoré just sings about human interaction: "Give me a bit of what you are/ But do it with gentleness and tolerance."
Like what you hear, buy it! And support the artists that really need it.
Traoré's spare arrangements use a variety of instruments, including a calabash harp called the bolon, an African lute called the n'goni and, on two tracks, the strings of San Francisco's acclaimed Kronos Quartet. But the songs are really designed to showcase the range of moods and colors in Traoré's own voice. On Mariama, a stirring call-and-response duet with veteran Ousmane Sacko, she provides the velvety counterpoint to his rough edges. On Manian, a searching song about poverty in which she asks, "What have I done to deserve such a life/ Who have I offended in heaven?", she begins with a matter-of-fact resignation familiar to anyone who has spent time in Africa, then unleashes a spellbinding mix of urgent chants, mournful cadenzas and more quiet testimony.
She often sings as the outsider, a role she has played for most of her life. A diplomat's daughter, Traoré spent chunks of her childhood in Algeria, Belgium and Saudi Arabia. As a musician, she's had to fight for respect, since she was not born into the caste of griots, Mali's musician-bards. It's been hard "to make people accept you for who you are," she says. The outsider's refrain is a cry for acceptance, and she sings one now for developing nations like Mali, whose needs are often overlooked. "In Africa, we are not powerful," she says. "This music is just to say: we are not O.K. But — there is always a message of hope." Her most spirited missive is Niènafîng, a drum-driven salute to her homeland. "Who dares say that Mali
has nothing to offer?" she demands. After listening to Bowmboï, nobody would dare.