Rokia Traorè - Beautiful Africa
Ponderosa Music & Art - April 2013
The first thing you hear on Rokia Traoré's Beautiful Africa is a drum beat, unadorned. It only lasts a few seconds before the guitars wrap around it like a veil, but it still feels revealing, as though we opened the door on the music just a few seconds before it was ready for us. That thump and tap, in a rhythm a bit like Radiohead’s “Idioteque,” tells us a lot about the album that follows: This is a record that grooves but also invites the listener to come closer, to step into its space, be still and listen. Traoré and producer John Parish have captured this music in all its rhythmic grace with great intimacy, capturing each slide up the bass or thrum of the n’goni with direct clarity.
For music with such rhythmic body, precision in capturing the singular character of each sound is often beside the point. But Traoré’s music benefits immensely from it-- you can hear the way the her guitar twists around the other guitars and Mamah Diabaté’s dusty n’goni, and the sound sets this thicket of repeated, interlocking phrases inside the full-bodied rhythm section. The effect is of music that lives two rhythmic lives in tandem, and each one pushes the other, leaving her voice free to glide loosely over the top. Traoré’s past albums established her as a fine singer, but here, she feels more accomplished than ever, her voice bending around her words (sung mostly in Bamana) with flourishes of subtle vibrato.
Moreover, she’s developed the dynamic range of her singing and writing. “Sikey” and “Lalla” both offer slippery funk, but with two completely different feels, while “N’Téri” travels in time over its nine and a half minutes, from hushed and skeletal n’goni topped by some of Traoré’s most incredible, full-throated singing to a whirling, driving electric song. The final couple of minutes surge on a bed of beatboxing and roiling guitar. It’s an amazing performance, and a good contrast to the more concise and straightforwardly funky songs.
Traoré is from Mali, and her music carries many signatures of her homeland, from the n’goni to the language to the circular guitar figures, but her sound is fundamentally international, swallowing tradition and modernity whole to create a pop sound she can quite easily call her own. Being from her country means contending with the legacies of some of West Africa’s most internationally successful artists; at this point, I’d say Traoré fits comfortably alongside her forbears.
1 Lalla 3:48
2 Kouma 3:58
3 Sikey 3:28
4 Ka Moun Kè 6:25
5 Mélancolie 4:05
6 N'Téri 9:27
7 Tuit Tuit 5:23
8 Beautiful Africa 3:34
9 Sarama 5:02