September 28, 2014
BAM's 2014 Next Wave Festival features 13 mainstage events this year in honor of Nonesuch Records 50th Anniversary. The September 24th performance of Rokia Traoré at the Howard Gilman Opera House marked one such event as the Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist presented her most recent Nonesuch recording, Beautiful Africa, in its entirety. In addition, the celebratory and musical evening included highlights from her 2009 record, Tchamantché, and two earlier works performed with the Kronos Quartet.
Traoré’s voice exudes a balance of subtly and power at once - whether singing in her native Bambara, French, or even a little English. A four-piece band and two backup singers join her, opening with the whispery and dark “Dounia.” Traoré’s versatility is quickly put on display however, with the following “Yandé” introducing a funk rock feel, much grittier.
The first song presented from Beautiful Africa is "Lalla," intertwining both the n'goni (traditional lute) and guitar as dominant rhythms – a welcome theme that maintains a distinct West African flare. This new album is personal with conscious nods to Traoré’s conflict-riddled homeland of Mali. The latter is most apparent in the title track, which appears later in the program; it is perhaps the most rock and also a poetic homage to her “beautiful, wounded Africa.” Meanwhile, songs like “Mélancolie” take on universal and more private emotions of sadness, loneliness. A highlight came in the later performance of “Tuit Tuit," marking one of the most upbeat songs of the set, its melody, contagious.
Mid-program, "Zen" demands a more colloquial atmosphere. The lyrics, a mix of French and Bambara, are audibly mesmerizing as she abandons her guitar to simply sing and dance. It's at this moment the poised, proscenium audience within the classic Opera House succumbs to the energy and community Traoré has created. All begin freely clapping, dancing, and cheering along.
Prior to performing the gentle ballad, “N’téri,” Traoré addresses the audience. “This song is about tolerance,” she shares, “it’s about our ability to understand that we are small…that we are nothing.” This call for perspective is a thoughtful backdrop for the song’s soulful framework which builds to some of her most intensely, belted vocals.
Closing the evening are two works, “Manian” and “Bowmboi,” created in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet who also joined as special guests. The string-heavy shift is to be expected, but the pairing of Bambara lyrics with the hints of classicism is refreshing, a further contrast in the already varied program.
Notable about Traoré's music is its unexpected trajectory, often transforming to reach another place entirely with a different energy and new rhythms discovered. Traoré remains of her homeland's tradition while welcoming the likes of European and American rock. Much like her music - wonderfully open and diverse - it’s no wonder she is ever evolving in her style and sound.
Originally Traoré was to be joined by the father-son pair of musicians, Toumani Diabaté and Sidiki Diabaté. Though unforeseen circumstances made them unavailable, Traoré's solo set proved captivating.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY - Jenny Thompson