Rokia Traore – Tchamantche

January 01, 1970

(Nonesuch)

www.nonesuch.com

“Say no to exodus/France is a source of
suffering,” counsels Rokia Traore on “Tounka,” a song from her
exquisite new Tchamantche. As
subsequent lines make clear, the Malian singer-guitarist is warning against the
dangerous ocean passage that desperate migrants take to Europe,
not the place itself. Indeed, Tchamantche is Traore’s most Westernized album, although that doesn’t mean she’s mislaid
her heritage. Sung mostly in her native Bambara, with occasional forays into
French and English, Tchamantche expands Traore’s music without forfeiting its essence.

On Traore’s three previous studio albums, her brand of
African folk-rock was not unlike that of fellow Malian Habib Koite; both
employed easygoing tempos, rippling timbres and luxuriant vocal harmonies.
About half of Tchamantche‘s songs
feature backing singers, but the overall style is starker and bluesier. The
album is dedicated to Mali-blues master Ali Farka Toure; it was also inspired
by Billie Holiday — Traore performed in a 2005 “Billie and Me”
tribute tour — and the twang of a vintage Gretsch electric guitar. Although
the n’goni (a West African lute) is heard, the sound is dominated by guitar,
bass and drums.

The only non-original is a version of “The Man I
Love” that starts slow and spare, suggesting Holiday’s
rendition, but then turns jazzy and bilingual. Equally unexpected is
“Zen,” a bare-bones Francophone groove in praise of “rien”
(“nothing”). There are no stomping dance numbers, but
“Aimer,” “Koronoko” and “Tounka” (which boasts
the set’s earthiest vocal) are rhythmically intricate and quietly driving. A
diplomat’s daughter, Traore has the experience and assurance to compound her
own worldly style. But its pulse is that of the place that Traore, in the
insinuating “Dounia,” calls “an Africa
alive.”

Standout Tracks: “Koronoko,” “Dounia” MARK JENKINS

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