Rokia Traore's new album was inspired in part by the sound of a vintage Gretsch guitar.
Malian singer Rokia Traore has never been a traditionalist. The daughter of a diplomat, she grew up assimilating European and African cultures, and in her 10-year career, she's developed a sound that uses elements of Malian tradition in her own way. Traore's fourth album, Tchamantche, is just out, and it's her best and most daring work.
"Dounia," the opening track, tells the whole story. Traore always stood out as a West African female singer who also plays guitar. Here, she trades in her usual acoustic axe for a vintage Gretsch jazz guitar and matches its dark tones with a moody, whispering melody.
In "Dounia" — meaning "the world" — Traore touches on the themes of Mali's traditional praise singers, who belt out mighty proclamations about life's inevitable course. "No one can see, [even from the highest point of existence] what tomorrow will be," she sings. "Days that are honey sweet? Days that taste of gall? ... Hours of glory, hours of disappointment." But her mode is less assured than the griots, more delicate and mysterious. With this introspective mood established, Traore's ensemble joins in, led by a traditional lute.
Traore's meld of African and rock aesthetics is understated and as comfortable as it is cool. In this one song, her vocal style shifts from an opening whisper to bird-like cooing and ultimately a growling crescendo in which she laments the remoteness of the heroes who built the great societies of the past — as she puts it, "the story of an Africa we miss." It's the work of a mature artist who embraces the contradictions of her African ancestry and looks ahead with hope, but also a poet's wariness.
So begins Tchamantche, which means "balance." The world's less-developed societies have produced many singers who seek to balance musical style and cultural perspective, and to address the larger world. Few manage it with the grace and style of Rokia Traore.