First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2009, Volume 16, #6
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed June 3, 2009, 04:30 AM CDT
Rokia Traore is one of the most underappreciated singers in the realm of African music. This, however, should change for the better in the wake of her excellent new album Tchamantche. Although she originally is from Mali, Traore has an international perspective. This stems from her father’s service as a diplomat, which forced her family to move from locale to locale around the globe. Consequently, the palette from which she draws is more diverse than the one used by her West African counterparts.
In addition to working on Tchamantche, Traore also has written a musical based upon the life of Mozart, and she has participated in a traveling revue devoted to exploring Billie Holiday’s canon. Not surprisingly, then, she often conducts stylistic experiments by inserting jazz and classical motifs into her compositions. Traore also plays the guitar, an instrument that is not usually deemed suitable for an African woman to play. These unusual career choices undoubtedly account for the fact that she has not received the acclaim that she long has deserved.
Unlike Traore’s other endeavors, which have featured her either accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar or backed by a traditional African ensemble, Tchamantche is an exercise in electric minimalism. Filled with her fuzzy-sounding, Gretsch-guitar tones, the songs on Tchamantche often evoke John Lee Hooker’s folk-blues recordings from the 1950s. A luxurious sense of space emanates from the recording, and each note that Traore delivers resonates with warmth, while hanging poignantly in the air. This maximizes the emotional impact she makes.
Backed by a European rhythm section — which thankfully doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to sound like a Malian outfit — Traore offers a very tasty collection of stripped-down, minor-key blues songs, which gain momentum and complexity as Tchamantche progresses. Likewise, the rhythms become more seductive and uplifting. Tchamantche begins with a hushed invitation to intimacy, but by its final track, it has evolved into a full-fledged celebration of life in all of its glory and sorrow.
It is impossible not to admire Traore’s audacity as she seems to delight in inverting formulas. For example, she uses a classical harp instead of a traditional kora to generate a wash of string sounds. Like most artists from Mali, Traore sings primarily in French and her local dialect, but the inclusion of her cover of George and Ira Gershwin’s The Man I Love — a tune that typically is associated with Holiday — demonstrates just how creative and innovative she has become. Traore’s take on this oft-recorded standard is bizarre, insightful, and beautiful beyond words.
Without a doubt, Traore is an artist to watch. With Tchamantche, she has proven that she thoroughly understands and honors her own traditions. Yet, she also has seen beyond them to create her own style and means of expression. Exciting and innovative, Tchamantche is a slow-burning album that reveals itself gradually through repeated exposure.
Of Further Interest...
Tchamantche is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box