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April 23, 2009

Mali's Rokia Traoré Rocks

by John Oseid

I was thrilled when Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré took home the Best World Music award at France's Victoires de la Musique ceremony last winter. I've been a big fan for years, and just a week earlier, I had witnessed her bring a Brooklyn College crowd to its feet.

At the Zénith de Paris, Rokia sang her driving blues rock number "Zen" (watch the performance above). It's a song about doing nothing ("J'ai eu le courage de ne rien faire" goes the refrain, for you Francophones), in which her delicate voice is backed by the plucking rhythm of an African thumb piano.

The daughter of a diplomat, Rokia is fiercely proud of her Malian roots, but she's not wedded to any popular ideas of West African music. It's unusual, for example, to find a female Malian guitarist, but watch how the waifish singer wields her big rockabilly Gretsch on Jools Holland's popular BBC music show. First, she sings "Zen" again, and she then picks up her guitar and jams on "Tounka," a song about illegal immigration. The musician with the white head wrap is making that cool banjo-y sound on a traditional ngoni string instrument.

Except for the Gershwin standard "The Man I Love," all the tunes on her new gem of an album Tchamantché (the word means equilibrium) are her own compositions sung in a mix of French and Bambara. If American radio wasn't so banal, Rokia Traoré would be all over the airwaves here.

More music:
* At Rokia's Brooklyn show, she was joined by South African anti-apartheid activist and singer Vusi Mahlasela. Check him out on vusimahlasela.com.
* This summer you can find Rokia playing at top festivals and stages all over Europe. The events are listed on her MySpace page.
* Rokia's Web site includes a set of videos. "Dounia" is an elegant paen to Mali's rich cultural heritage.
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world.

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