Rokia Traore Speaks To Malian Women With Wanita

Malian singer/songwriter's new album rearranges traditional instruments, ideas.

Once in a while a world-music artist gives her country's music a sharp, progressive kick. In the West African nation of Mali, that someone is singer/songwriter Rokia Traore, whose sophomore album, Wanita (Indigo), was released Tuesday.

"She's part of a new generation," said Banning Eyre, author of "In Griot Time: An American Guitarist in Mali" and correspondent. "She's of the country, but she's also spent a lot of time outside it and that gives her a unique perspective."

That perspective is reflected in the subjects of her lyrics, her approach to singing and her ideas about instrumentation.

Traore, 26, burst upon the scene three years ago when she won the Radio France International African Discoveries competition, played the Music Festival of Angouléme (her seventh concert), recorded her debut CD, Mouneïssa, and came under the wing of guitarist Ali Farka Touré, whom she described as "both a moral and professional guide during my first steps."

She didn't set out to become a professional singer. Instead, Traore said, "It happened by chance, by meeting people who were in the business. When I was a teenager, I just wrote for myself with no idea of turning professional one day."

World Traveler

Growing up with a diplomat father, Traore saw far more of the world than the vast majority of Malians. She lived not only in the capital, Bamako, but also in Belgium, Algeria and Saudi Arabia, which exposed her to a wide range of music and role models ranging from Tina Turner and Ella Fitzgerald to Joe Zawinul and Mali's own Kandia Kouyate. Starting singing lessons at 12, and making her debut as a backup vocalist with a rap group, she began writing her own songs as a teenager.

Traore's voice sets her apart from the wailing griottes (praise singers) and women from the Wassoulou region who are Mali's better-known female singers. On "Wanita" (RealAudio excerpt), for example, she sings softly and lyrically with jazz nuances. "I'm not based on power and volume," she said. "I'm looking in a totally different direction."

Preferring concert settings, Traore doesn't perform on the wedding-and-party circuit that provides griottes with their income. She breaks the mold lyrically, too. Songs such as "Chateau de Sable" (Sandcastle) (RealAudio excerpt) reject traditional praise singing in favor of ruminations (e.g., "The winds will sweep away the castle") on the new role of women in a rapidly changing society — concerns that have earned her a progressive audience at home.

"The women who follow me, or feel close and want to get in touch with me, want to be independent," she explained. "They go to university, or work, and have achieved real independence. The majority of women in Mali, however, really don't understand my lyrics or the direction I'm taking."

Musical Shift

Traore has introduced some radical musical changes, too, though to Western ears her music sounds quite Malian. She not only fronts a band but also plays guitar onstage. Her musicians play traditional instruments but in unusual combinations. She was the first, for example, to pair up the xylophonelike balafaon and ngoni lute.

"I feel inspired by acoustic and traditional instruments," she said. "I know their colors, and I feel comfortable with them. Creating unique orchestrations serves my moods." Unlike other West African singers, she has eschewed electric instruments because "I want to show that you can do something different with traditional and acoustic instruments."

Songs such as "Mancipera" (RealAudio excerpt), about not needing to marry, keep Traore outside the Malian musical mainstream, although she's become a star there. She's also become a role model for younger female singers trying to create their own personal styles.

Still, Eyre said, "she might prove to be a transitional figure standing between the past and the future. But for now, she's unique."