Born on January 26, 1974, in Beledougou, Mali; daughter of Mamadou Dianguina Traore (a diplomat) and Oumou Traore. Addresses: Record companies---Bleu, BP 0631, 80006 Amiens cedex 01, France, website: http://www.label-bleu.com. Nonesuch Records, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10104, website: http://www.nonesuch.com. Website--Rokia Traore Official Website: http://www.rokiatraore.net.
Malian singer Rokia Traore burst onto the world music scene in 1997 when she was awarded the Radio France Internationale prize for African Discovery of the Year, only a year after she had become a professional singer. Traore, who sings almost exclusively in her native Bamanan language, has achieved international critical and popular acclaim as one of the most innovative stylists to emerge in the West African singing tradition. With the release of each of her three CDs, Traore has garnered increasing praise, and her third CD, Mouneïssa, was awarded BBC Radio 3's Critics Award in 2004. Difficult to classify, Traore's work blends traditional African music with an array of musical influences, ranging from classical to jazz, and from folk to blues to Western pop. Traore is especially praised for her live performances, during which she enthralls audiences with her hypnotic singing and graceful dancing.
Traore was born in the Beledougou region of Mali in 1974. Her father was a diplomat, and consequently she and her family traveled extensively, and lived in Belgium, France, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and Mali's capital, Bamako. Throughout her youth Traore's transient lifestyle made it difficult for her to fit in with her peers, and she was neither fully part of her African nor her European classmates' worlds. Her father, Mamadou, played the saxophone and introduced Traore to such jazz artists as Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Traore found solace in music and recalled to Renee Graham in a Boston Globe interview, "I was a very solitary child.... Music was therapy for me. I was writing lyrics even before I realized I wanted to be a professional singer."
Given Traore's family background---she is a descendant of a noble warrior caste---it is unusual that she had the option to pursue a professional music career because, according to Mali custom, members of the noble caste are forbidden to sing in public. Singing is reserved for members of a lower caste. Mali's rich musical traditions are backed by strict hierarchical standards, wherein male singers, or griots (oral historians), and female praise singers, or griottes, perform at ceremonies and weddings. Traore, however, is a member of the Bamana ethnic group, a social group that does not impose such restrictions on its upper caste, so she was free to become a singer.
Rising Star Lit Up World Music Scene
Traore received her early musical training from Massamou Welle, a family friend and master who gave her lessons in traditional West African singing. Her early musical influences were varied. She listened to her father's jazz and blues recordings, sang traditional songs with her sisters at family ceremonies, and shared an interest in British and American rock with her brother. While she was in high school, Traore sang backup vocals in a rap group. Always interested in poetry, she wrote her own songs and played guitar, developing her minimalist style. With the exception of early compositions written in French, Traore writes in her native Bamanan language, a poetic, honeyed language best suited for her lilting style. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Traore has stated that "Banaman speaks in images and proverbs. It provides a poetic framework to speak thoughts and ideas."
When she was 22, while living with her family in Belgium and studying social sciences at a university, Traore made the difficult decision to return to Mali and live on her own to pursue a professional music career. In 1996 she gave her first major solo public performance on a popular Mali TV program, singing "Finini" and "Mouneïssa," songs that gained in local popularity. She caught the attention of Jacques Szalay, director of the French Cultural Center in Bamako, who arranged to have her perform at the Angouleme Festival in France. Her electric performance there launched her career, and she was subsequently named African Discovery of 1997 by Radio France International. At this point Ali Farka Toure, the legendary Malian guitarist called by many the "John Lee Hooker" of West Africa, took Traore under his wing and mentored her singing and guitar playing. Traore released Mouneïssa, her debut CD, in 1998, and dedicated it to Ali Farka Toure.
Mouneïssa garnered immediate praise and sold over 40,000 copies in Europe, though it was more popular in France than in her native Mali. Following the successful release of her debut CD, Traore toured extensively in Europe and in her homeland, although at first she had difficulty forming a group of musicians because her role as a female arranger was not initially accepted. Additionally, her work was viewed with suspicion because Traore was combining traditional West African instruments that had never before been played together. For example, in what has become her stylistic innovation, she frequently mixes the balafon (African xylophone) with the ngoni (African lute and precursor to the American banjo) to create a previously never-recorded sound. Traore told Boston Globe critic Steve Morse, "When I expressed the idea of putting together the ngoni and balafon, the musicians said, 'Come on, they are impossible to tune together. We cannot do music like this.' So this was the first step to a new modernism."
Traore has also incorporated muted percussions that blend well with her voice. Her voice departs dramatically from other Malian griottes such as Kandia Kouyate and Oumou Sangare, whose powerful wailing voices are backed by heavy percussion and amplified electric instruments. Traore's voice is noted for its smooth, lyrical, rhythmic style and for the personal nature of her songs. Angel Romero wrote in Women's Review of Books that "compared to [Kouyate and Sangare], Traore's sound is pure and passionate, her vocals melodious and accessible, her textures more intricate." Praising Traore's music, Billboard's Timothy White declared that her work embodies the "softly poetic but intensely persevering messages of a woman who is quietly but questfully altering the face of African music."
Success Breeds Success
With the release of Traore's second album, Wanita, the artist proved that the success of her debut was no fluke. She also began to gain the respect in her homeland that had thus far eluded her. Traore explained to Sheila Nopper in Herizons, "I use traditional acoustic instruments to show people I am not just being opportunistic but very much respecting my traditional culture---yet trying to modernize the sound in some way. People have begun to understand that I am very sincere." Traore wrote and arranged all of the songs on Wanita, and her hand in the production proved appealing. Wanita found a spot on numerous "best of" and top ten lists for 2000, including the New York Times, Billboard, and Folk Roots, among others. Traore took her first North American tour in 2000 and was met with critical acclaim, as much for her music as for her graceful dancing. She was backed by an impressive lineup of African musicians, including Andra Kouyate, Mamah Diabate (ngoni), Abdul Wahab Berthe, Noel Ekwabi (bass, the only electric instrument), Adama Diarra (balafon), Sidiki Camara (percussions), Toumani Diabate (kora), Coco Mbassi, Massambou Diallo, and Boubacar Traore (vocals). The songs on Wanita reflect more socially conscious themes---notably themes concerning women's issues---than those on Mouneïssa. According to All Music Guide's Chris Nickson, they represent "a mild quantum leap from Traore's debut." Nickson also noted that while appealing to a broad audience, "Traore ensures her music remains quite authentic, and speaks to her own people, rather than any sellout to Western values." In Mali, her popularity continued to grow, inspiring many young women to enroll in music schools in order to compose songs and learn to play instruments.
After Wanita, Traore admitted on her website to feeling some disillusionment with the commercial direction her career seemed to be taking. "I wanted to get back to the spirit I had before I was a professional musician---humility, tolerance, and simplicity. Those are the underlying themes. I wanted to stay simple and stay moral and not believe my own hype." She did just that with her third album, Bowmboï, released in Europe in late 2003 and in North America on the Nonesuch label in 2004. All of the arrangements and lyrics are Traore's own, but notable on the CD are her duet with Malian griot Ousmane Sacko on "Mariama," and her collaborations with San Francisco's Kronos Quartet on "Manian" and "Bowmboï."
This collaboration was received with mixed reviews. Mark Hudson of the London Daily Telegraph commented, "[The] presence of the Kronos Quartet ... somehow enhances the impression of a rather polite performer far removed from African realities," but he nevertheless concluded, "Bowmboï is an austerely beautiful work that pushes further into quasi-classical experimentation than any African album to date." BBC Radio fRoots' critic Ian Anderson remarked, "It's probably a shame that beautiful though they are, a couple of tracks with classical whizzkids Kronos Quartet will probably get too much critical attention. They are indeed lovely, but this isn't a record which gains its right to success from an association with famous Westerners. It's all the rest, made in Mali or brewed in one scarily talented Malian's head, which is the big deal." Bowmboï, which received BBC Radio 3's World Music Critics Award, captured Traore's largest audience thus far. It also garnered praise as her first CD to reflect the exuberance she conveys on stage.
Variously compared to Tracy Chapman, Enya, Carly Simon, Björk, Joan Baez, and Sinead O'Connor, Traore has transcended all such comparisons through an inventive and reverent blend of traditional and contemporary, and she has firmly established her place as a major name in contemporary African music.
by Elizabeth Henry
Rokia Traore's Career
Backup vocalist in a rap group in high school; performed "Finini" and "Mouneïssa" on popular Mali TV program; played at the Angouleme Festival, France; met Ali Farka Toure, Northern Mali guitarist and singer, who mentored her early career, 1997; recorded debut album, Mouneïssa, 1997; released Mouneïssa, Indigo/Label Bleu, 1998; recorded second CD, Wanita, Indigo label, 2000; signed with American label Nonesuch and released third album, Bowmboï, 2004.
Rokia Traore's Awards
Radio France Internationale, African Discovery of the Year, 1997; Kora All Africa Music Award, Most Promising Female, 2001; BBC Radio 3's World Music Award, Critics Award for Bowmboï, 2004.
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- Chicago Sun Times, August 17, 2000, p. 45.
- Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 11, 2003, p. 12.
- Daily Variety, October 19, 2004, p. 7.
- Guardian (London, England), October 3, 2003, p. 12; November 8, 2003, p. 18.
- Herizons, Fall 2002, p. 59.
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- Los Angeles Sentinel, August 30, 2000, p. B7.
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- Rokia Traore Official Website, http://www.rokiatraore.net (December 8, 2004).