Rokia Traoré ‘Beautiful Africa’ (Nonesuch) 4/5

Malian singer-songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traoré is a subtle dislocation from the norm of Malian singers in several respects. Her gentle, soft vocal delivery departs from the strong, powerful tradition of her nation’s chanteuses. As the daughter of a diplomat, Traoré has experienced a significantly different lifestyle from her compatriots and this has exposed her to a vaster range of musical influences, especially from the western world. Currently residing in Paris, her approach to music is thoroughly cosmopolitan and this is illustrated by her most recent collaborative work which takes in a theatre production with novelist Toni Morrison and director Peter Sellers, and a UK tour last year with Damon Albarn as part of the Africa Express project that also included singers of the calibre of Paul McCartney and Baba Maal. For this latest album, which follows on from the critically acclaimed ‘Tchamantché’ from 2009 that won awards in France via Victoires de la Musique and in the UK from roots magazine’s Songlines artist of the year, Rokia Traoré has placed the former Malian blues component to her music on the backburner and has instead enlisted the support of rock producer John Parish who, among others, has worked closely with P.J. Harvey. A new, evolving sound, then, but not a radical departure from the past and thankfully one that retains her earthy Malian essence, but adds a rawer and, in some ways, edgier sound and was recorded in Bristol. Parish avoids the pitfall of overproducing and the stripped down sound with occasional guitar added works extremely well and is very complimentary to the overall feel. The fast-paced ‘Sikey’ with its call and response vocals and neat, intricate guitar work stands out as does the initmate ‘Sarama’ that closes the albums and recalls the acoustic side of Baba Maal. The gentle voice allied to lyrics that oscillate between Bambara and English is immediately accessible and likely to appeal to music fans beyond roots devotees. For some variation the mid-tempo ‘Mélancolie’ which is a guitar-led piece in French impresses while the floating opener ‘Lalla’ features an interesting change in tempo and the use of n’goni with backing vocals. With a new UK tour imminent in May and the right amount of publicity, this album could just be the breakthrough that Rokia Traoré has bene waiting for and an appearance at the 2013 Glastonbury during the summer will do her cause no harm whatsoever. An early contender for modern African music album of the year.

Tim Stenhouse