The Upshot: As with so much African music, Né So favors hope over despair, proud defiance over inchoate anger.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
It’s a tricky road to walk as an African recording musician – you have to balance wide international appeal while still remaining true to your own artistic traditions. That latter notion doesn’t mean hewing closely to traditional forms (though it can mean that) – Africans do live in the 21st century, after all, and avail themselves of the same modern recording gear and instrumentation as anybody else. But it can be a difficult balancing act to maintain. Not an impossible one, by any means – witness the spectacular careers of Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita, Tinariwen, the Touré family and the Kuti family.
Add the name Rokia Traoré to that distinguished list. Undeniably the next African superstar, the Malian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist compromises her vision not a whit, while still making music accessible to a general audience (if there is such a thing for music this far outside the mainstream). Working with producer John Parish (PJ Harvey), Traoré takes the circular melodies of her mentor Ali Farka Touré and gives them danceable grooves, letting her rich trill (in French and her native language) take center stage. The frenetic rhythms of “Ô Niélé” (with guest John Paul Jones on bass) and “Kènia” keep the melodies roiling while her voice rides the wave. The less frantic grooves driving “Tu Voles” and “Mayé” keep the songs from boiling over, but still simmering, and may be the most enticing tracks for non-African ears. “Kolokani” couches its longing for home in soft sounds that come as close to a ballad as Afropop gets.
Oddly, one of the best tracks comes from a non-African source – at least not directly. Traoré’s cover of “Strange Fruit,” accompanied by jazz bassist Reggie Washington, seems like a gimme for Western ears on the face of it. But the parallels between the racially-based violence of the American south and the Malian north are too close to deny, and Traoré’s haunting vocals bespeak every stitch of generational and ancestral pain. But the record ends on “Sé Dan,” an English-sung message of respect and optimism that even a guest spot by indie folk wackjob Devendra Banhart can’t knock off-kilter. As with so much African music, Né So favors hope over despair, proud defiance over inchoate anger, and stands as the most trenchant portrait of the African musical spirit so far this year.
DOWNLOAD: “Kènia,” “Strange Fruit,” “Tu Voles”