Rokia Traoré looks poised. The Malian songstress sits thoughtfully at the edge of her seat. She considers my questions backstage at the Maison des Arts in Paris. In a few hours she will be performing her rich, soulful music to another rapt audience. Traoré has amassed a sizeable following since breaking onto the scene over ten years ago with her first album, Mouneïssa, released in 1998. 40,000 copies were sold in Europe. Traoré became an African music sensation. But one senses that fame means little to her. “I could never do anything commercial” she says. “I don’t think like that. I just do what I feel.”
Traoré is complex, intelligent and sensitive. She ‘feels’ a lot in her speech. She tells me “sometimes I react more to peoples’ way of behaving than what they say. I’m very sensitive to people”. Her experience as a diplomat’s daughter, growing up in Nigeria, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, gave her the time and experiences conducive to seek avenues for creative expression. “I started by writing. Travelling a lot, I had lots of time and began using music as a way of expressing myself,” she pauses, “it was a kind of therapy. There’s a paradox, as singing is both selfish and generous.”
Traoré grew up listening to the music of legendary Guinean griot Sory Kandia Kouyate and British group Dire Straits. Traditional West African and guitar-based western music were already becoming broad sources of musical inspiration. But ironically it was rap that made Traoré’s name in Mali. Influenced by the likes of Public Enemy and Snap! Traoré and her brothers formed a hip hop collective called “Let’s fight”. Two of their songs were aired on national TV.
Following her mother’s advice, however, Rokia returned to her roots. By 1997 she was collaborating with Ali Farka Touré, who would become a major figure in her life, and over the next six years Traoré produced three critically acclaimed albums. The latest, Tchamantché, won her the best artist award of the 2009 Songlines Music Awards. The album is an intriguing collection of music, sensuously combining bluesy Gretsch guitar licks with West African ngoni plucks to produce a distinct sound, softened by jazz drum patter and Traoré’s feminine voice that can somehow sound forceful yet fragile.
Traoré sings mostly in Bambara, yet the album includes songs in French and English. Her dazzlingly original version of Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ reflects her willingness to invert existing standards. This same characteristic saw Traoré construe Mozart as a thirteenth century griot of the Mande Empire for director Peter Sellars at the New Crowned Hope festival in 2006. Held in London and Vienna, the festival was celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Austrian composer. Traoré’s artistry clearly doesn’t shirk from the big occasion.
Her continuing desire to experiment sees her touring the UK in April and May with Sweet Billy Pilgrim, the Mercury Prize-nominated British trio likened to Radiohead for their wistful art-pop pieces. They and Traoré performed beautifully together at the Barbican last year, and the upcoming shows promise to be especially intriguing. “I’m very happy and excited about the idea. I love collaborations, especially with people with a music background so different from mine as it means I will learn.”
As we near the end of our interview, I understand that Rokia keenly wants others less fortunate to have the chance to learn too. Since December 2009 Traoré has invested her energies in Passerelle, (meaning ‘bridge’ in French) her foundation which aims to help develop Mali’s music industry by providing artists with greater opportunities to play. She has the advantage of her childhood upbringing, giving her know-how when it comes to forging third sector partnerships. The Fondation Passerelle’s first live event will take place on the Niger riverside by Mali’s capital in mid-May. If she can achieve a fraction of her success as a singer songwriter in this endeavour then Bamako’s young hopefuls should be counting themselves very lucky.