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LIVE REPORT: Rokia Traoré
Andy Thomas , July 2nd, 2012 06:24

Andy Thomas catches a trilogy of contrasting shows from the Malian singer songwriter. Photos by Mark Allan

Sing - Dance - Dream. After seeing the many sides of Rokia Traoré at the WOMAD festival, it seemed fitting that this would be the title chosen for three very different London performances from this most versatile of Mali’s female singer songwriters.

Born into the Bambara ethnic group, her trajectory to the world stage was an unusual one for a West African female singer. The daughter of a diplomat, Traoré travelled from Algeria to France with her parents, soaking up influences as an intensely curious teenager. While her parents were away in Brussels, she studied music at Lycée Français Liberté in Bamako. It was here that she honed her craft, merging traditional Malian music with the sounds she had heard on her travels. A Malian woman with a guitar is not a usual sight in this musical rich country, which was perhaps what caught the attention of the great blues man Ali Farka Touré, who helped guide Rokia through her first LP Mouneïssa in 1997. This was to open the ears of the world music scene to the next in a line of acclaimed Malian female singers, such as Oumou Sangare, although Traoré has always been keen to stress that she is not a traditional Malian singer. “I respect what [traditional praise-singers] do, but I’ve never wanted to compete with them. I don’t have their traditional training and background. I’m more interested in inventing a new way of singing,” she told the Daily Telegraph back in 2004. The accolades (including BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for her 2003 Bowmboï LP) that have followed have been testament to the way Traoré has continued to innovate at the edges of traditional Malian music. This week’s triumvirate of gigs is one of her more ambitious projects, in a year that will also see Traoré bring her acclaimed theatrical collaboration with director Peter Sellars and novelist Toni Morrison to the London stage. 

Wilton’s Music Hall is located down an anonymous alley a short work from Tower Hill, a once vibrant entertainment space for the East End now clinging on to survival thanks to occasional grants. The faded grandeur of this 19th Century building would prove a perfect setting for Dream, a night of storytelling and song built around a 13th Century epic from Mali’s oral tradition. Sundiata, a poem that tells of the prophecies leading to the birth of Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mandé Empire has traditionally been retold by the griots, the retainers of history in West Africa. It’s a sign both of Traoré’s respect for her country’s past and her unwillingness to be bound by conventions, that this non-griot proves such an eloquent and passionate storyteller. Sitting on a stool in a simple white dress she begins reciting the tail in French, with the words translated on the wall behind. The quiet intensity of her poetry is augmented by the kora and n’goni of Mamadoba Camara and Mamah Diabaté, as we settle into a sedate yet powerful performance. Traoré is a compelling narrator, bursting into deep song at the end of each section of the tale. It’s wonderful to hear that distinctive, quavering yet incredibly powerful voice in such a setting. When she pushes away the microphone for an uplifting finale, the crowd who have sat mesmerised for the last 70 minutes respond in admiration. Tonight’s show is of course being told against a backdrop of turmoil in Mali, and there is an added poignancy to this story from pre-colonial West Africa. The fact that the situation in Mali is hardly featured in UK media gives this first performance a resonance that grows as the week progresses.

The Barbican is a more familiar setting for Rokia Traoré in London, but tonight’s Donguili (Sing) performance has a different mood to the last time she was here. There will be joy here tonight but also sadness. The show was organised as a benefit for the singer’s music school, Foundation Passarelle, but as she explains the situation in Mali has meant that half the group have been unable to travel. Speaking just prior to the gig, Traoré explained the importance of the foundation. "We started before the problems but I just knew that culture is a key to all these problems in Africa. Culture can make Africans more self confident and trusting in their own ability. It is about training musicians and also about the education of the audience - pushing them to think of music and culture as part of an economy." Clearly upset that she has been unable to fulfil the dreams of some of her pupils to play in Europe, Traoré ensures that those who have travelled are given centre stage. So while it’s unfortunate that we are missing some of the young members of the foundation, the three backing singers not only provide stunning harmonies throughout but also step forward for solos, with their mentor joining the backing band. It is a nice touch and one that bodes well for the future of the foundation. Augmented by a full band including players of traditional West African instruments such as kora and n’goni combined with double bass and electric guitar, the voice of Traoré soars across the hall. Strapping on her vintage Gretsch guitar (that was central to her last LP Tchamantché) to be joined by Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on mandolin for 'Kèlè Mandi' off her 2004 LP Bowmboi, she also proved how her time with Ali Farka Touré was well served – African blues served with a smile. With Seb Rochford providing powerful drumming and beat-boxer Jason Singh adding some deep textures, by the time we reach ‘Tassidoni’ the band is simply flying.

The next night we are in the very different surrounds of a converted railway arch in East London for the final part of this trilogy. While Sing had been performed in front of an adoring but seated audience at the Barbican, the Village Underground in Old Street gave Traoré the opportunity to make her crowd move in the section called Donke or Dance. Again joined by a stellar band with many of the same players from the previous night (including the brilliant Seb Rochford and bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen) tonight’s show also included on guitar John Parish who is set to produce Traoré’s forthcoming LP. Before the show we were promised a night of “rock & Mandingue" sounds found in her new work. With Traore’s bluesy Gretsch and the guitar of Parish driving the band forward, it was the most forceful of the three shows. Opening with the spine tingling ‘Dounia’ from Tchamantché tonight is mainly about whetting the appetite for the studio sessions with Parish set for this summer. In amongst the storming African rock and dance tunes like ‘Lala’ and ‘N’Teri’ were gorgeous ballads like ‘Kamounke’ and a very impressive version of Billie Holliday’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (with touches of Beth Gibbons). On the way home from East London I come across a quote in an interview just prior to the show that takes on more significance after a week of spellbinding and poignant music. "Since the problems started, my will is just to keep working. That is the way to ensure that people talk about Mali in a different way.”

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