Bridgewater Hall Manchester 5th May 2010
Malian singer Rokia Traoré has had a far from normal upbringing. Born into a family with a diplomat father, she has been exposed from an early age to other cultures and rapidly became at ease in both West African and European lifestyles. This cosmopolitan experience has clearly shaped her musical perspective and outlook to life in general. Traoré has been keen to explore new sounds that fuse both sides of her life thus far and this is reflected in the musical development of her albums. Whereas earlier projects were essentially devoted to updating traditional Malian sounds, in recent years and especially with the release of ‘Tchamantché’ in 2008, Traoré has focused far more on a genuine merging of genres and is both innovative and visionary in this respect.
Taking centre stage with a French trio comprising the rhythm section plus ngoni player (four stringed West African instrument) and percussionist, and background singer, one cannot fail to notice the coming together of seemingly disparate musical traditions. The band immediately enter into an uptempo number that places firm emphasis on funky guitar riffs with the chorus of ‘Je t’aime’ sung in French. Discernible influences on the singer would include blues, funk, rock and even and disco while late 1970s Talking Heads seems to permeate a good deal of the French musicians playing. Malian influences are harder to identify, particularly in terms of vocalists and this one of Traoré’s aces, namely her ability to sound like none of her contemporaries with the booming voice of say an Oumou Sangare wheareas Rokia has an altogether softer tone. The balance between African and Western music shifts with each song. While on one song there might be a distinctly Malian tuareg (denoting the political border between Mali and Algeria) feel with repetitive riffs strummed by the ngoni player, on another piece there might be greater stress on rock music sounds. Yet even here multiple influences are subtly bubbling underneath with the band in jam session mood and Traoré dancing from side to side. An evening highlight is the tribute paid to the South African songstress Miriam Makeba in the form of the English language, ‘Quit it’, which skilfully blurs the lines between world roots and popular music. Indeed this raises an important question: should not world roots music by its very nature be easily accessible to all and not limited to an elite in the know? Troaré’s approach would surely endorse greater accessibility and mainstream acceptance. Throughout the evening one is constantly reminded that Rokia Traoré is capable of playing within and outside her musical tradition and in so doing has finally created her own unique style. What is interesting is how receptive the audience is to some of the more fusion oriented songs, giving lie to the argument that western world music audiences only want to hear older sounds in contrast to African audiences who openly embrace modern instrumentation and external influences.
Accompanying Rokia Traoré is an impressive band who are oustanding individuals not afraid to stretch out (and given free rein to do so by the singer), yet always conscious of their role as being part of a cohesive whole. Bassist Christophe Minck deserves particular praise and appears to be the musical director in charge. It is noticeable how bassist and ngoni player exchange riffs while the rhythm guitarist is often deployed within a song to denote a brisk change in tempo, so common to music throughout the African continent. Traoré herself is a fascinating individual. Of slim build with cascading hair that recalls the Supremes, she might at first glance appear to be a Malian equivalent of the young Diana Ross. This would be a false perception for once adopting guitar for various numbers, Traoré looks far more like Sister Rosetta Thorpe with all the confidence and distinctiveness of the latter and when adlibing revealing a blues-inflected tone in addition. For a well deserved encore, Traoré’s piercing voice is heard a cappella with the audience joining in on handclaps and with the majority of the lower tier already out of their seats before the band eventually join in and take the song in another direction, becoming a terrific dance number. Rokia Traoré is a musician with real stage presence and her regular if somewhat quiet banter with the audience is well received. She is in microcosm the very future of world roots music, seamlessly blending musical traditions to create something new, yet never losing sight of, or disrespecting her own tradition. Preceding her were British alt.country group Sweet Billy Pilgrim who presented an excellent set of sweet harmonies and folksy Americana sharing lead vocals, and created an instant rapport with the audience adding a few personal anecdotes from the drummer for good measure.