A Malian genre-blender pursues her vision of border-crossing pop with multiple 6-strings, the esoteric ngoni, and help from PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish.
Rokia Traoré plays guitar like she sings—with the ebb and flow cadences that are one of the signatures of Mali’s traditional music, called manding. Like Mali’s best-known 6-string musical export, the late guitarist Ali Farke Touré, she is a fusionist—mixing echoes of the ancient empire of the Mandinka people, which flourished from roughly 1230 to 1600, with sounds drawn from American and European influences. Unlike Touré, who blended the music of his homeland with the moaning guitar approach of stone Delta bluesmen (in particular, John Lee Hooker) that he heard on records as a young man, the 42-year-old Traoré has a free-ranging palette.
“Blues, classical, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, funk, pop—all these are part of me,” she relates on the line from Brussels, Belgium, where she has a pied-á-terre that’s her European base. “I started listening to all kinds of music in my father’s collection when I was 5. He played albums for me because I was his child who was instantly interested in music.”
And so, for 2013’s Beautiful Africa and her new album, Né So, which translates as “home,” she hired another adventurous guitarist to produce: John Parish. Best known as Polly Jean Harvey’s longtime collaborator and sideman, he’s also made albums with the Eels, Tracy Chapman, Sparklehorse, and Giant Sand. Traoré enlisted Parish to help her, essentially, break out of the world music niche.
“Although I often sing about things I’ve experienced and seen in Africa, I don’t want to make albums that can be put on the world music shelf and ignored by people who listen to rock or blues,” she explains. “I needed John for his real experience with rock music, so he could help me capture that spirit and energy in my music, because it’s there, but I don’t think somebody who is used to recording with traditional music could capture it as well as John.”
Beautiful Africa was recorded with a largely European band, while Né So was cut with a mostly pan-African cast. But this time Traoré ups the crossover ante with guest appearances by her friends John Paul Jones—yes, that John Paul Jones—and psychedelic folk-rocker Devendra Banhart. Parish also contributes on his trusty ’65 Jazzmaster. And in Europe, where there are fewer cultural striations than the U.S., her efforts to reach beyond the world music audience already seem to be working. After the release of Beautiful Africa, the French government honored her with the distinction of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters. She joined a list of recipients that includes Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Clint Eastwood, Patti Smith, Bono, and Elton John. She also performed at England’s prestigious Glastonbury Festival that year, and has appeared on the popular BBC musical variety show Later…with Jools Holland.
Traoré wasn’t always as concerned with innovation. In 1997, a year before her debut album, Mouneïssa, was released, she won the prestigious Radio France Internationale African Discovery prize while playing a guitar in a style closer to that of Ali Farke Touré, who she sought out as a mentor. But with each year and album, her interests have broadened. By 2003’s Bowmboï she was collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, and her band was propelled by her guitar in conjunction with a Western rhythm section. Three years later Traoré wrote a work for Vienna’s New Crowned Hope Festival under the artistic direction of theater auteur Peter Sellars that cast Mozart as a 13th-century griot. By 2008, when her album Tchamantché propelled her first major U.S. tour, she’d developed a unique guitar approach as angular, dry, and unpredictable as that of American avant-roots hotshot Marc Ribot. Blending that sound with balafon (a wooden xylophone-like instrument) and ngoni (a lute-like West African creation with a dried animal skin stretched over its top) gave her songs a unique, culture-straddling sound.
The ngoni also plays a major role in Né So, helping to cast the album’s hypnotic spell of interwoven amplified and organic strings. Most of the cuts have two guitars, although some sport three, along with ngoni played by Traoré band regular Mamah Diabaté.
“I always hear the ngoni in my work—when I’m writing songs—so it’s difficult to work without it,” Traoré says. “But what I like about it, unlike the balafon or the kora, is that you can use it in different kinds of music very easily. It’s versatile enough to fit into rock music or European classical music without sounding like Africa. It has its own unique color that doesn’t make you think of Africa when you hear it.”
Traoré, who also plays the bright, big-toned ngoni, suggests that performing on the instrument—which has little natural sustain and is a likely ancestor of the banjo—requires finer skills than playing guitar. The ngoni can have 4 to 7 strings of various lengths, and has no frets. It also has a wide variety of tunings for traditional repertoire. “The neck requires more sensitivity than guitar, and more precision to sound the note accurately. It’s very difficult,” she insists.
Recording the handmade traditional instrument for Né So also presented challenges. “The ngoni is very quiet and it sounds much better miked than it does through a pickup,” says Parish. “The pickups make it sound thin, but it was impossible to have it just miked in the same room as drum kits and electric guitars. So I ended up using a combination of a miked sound and a pickup sound.”
Parish live-tracked the album with the assistance of engineer Ali Chant at Jet Studios in Brussels. “There was plenty of room, so we could move people apart from each other and still have visual contact, which is important,” Parish relates. “There was enough separation that we could get a good sound for everybody, and then we had Rokia in a booth and her amp in another booth, so she could sing and play electric guitar. We redid a lot of her vocal tracks, but, to be honest, her live vocal tracks sounded great to me.”
Whether playing with Diabaté in combination with Parish or with the album’s other two principle guitarists, Stefano Pilia (who is from Italy), or Rodriguez Vangama (who is Congolese), Traoré remained the anchor, this time opting for a gentler, flowing approach that blurs the lines between melody and rhythm.
“She’s got a really good guitar style,” Parish observes. “She plays a strong rhythm and then can almost drop out of it and fall right back in. That’s quite energizing and, as a player, challenging. It’s also a very liberating way to play. It might seem incorrect, in terms of the way a guitar player might usually play rhythm, but her guitar really follows her voice in a way that brings everything she’s singing to life. And it sits right in the middle of what the other guitars and the ngoni are doing, like a rudder. She’s really an amazing musician who drives the essence of the song with what she plays.”
Traoré’s musical talents extend to her voice, a delightfully bird-like instrument she uses like a trumpet at times, holding back notes or laying into them with her breath to accent the deep currents of emotion that run through her lyrics. But getting to the “amazing” level wasn’t easy, although the high, honeyed tones of her vocal range seem genetic. Her father was a diplomat who, after instilling a love for Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald in Traoré as a child, opposed her decision to become a musician, fearing she’d be doomed to poverty in a profession dominated by arrogant men.
Traoré rehearses with her longtime ngoni player Mamah Diabaté, at left, and bassist Matthieu N’guessan, a new member of her ensemble who joined for the recording of Né So. Photo by Danny Willems
“I never felt I would fail,” she says. “I told him if I needed money I could always be a housekeeper, but if I hadn’t decided to become a musician, I might have been an architect or a teacher. As things have occurred, now my father is very proud.
“One thing I learned listening to all of that music and working with other musicians, especially Ali Farka Touré, was the importance of space,” she says. “Silence and repetition are crucial. Sometimes in my lyrics I use only several words. The emotional essence of my songs is very important, and using the same words or surrounding notes by silence intensifies things.”
The title track is, essentially, spoken, so its message—about the plight of millions of Africans uprooted by war, famine, and poverty—has plenty of time to build intensity over its 4-minute course as Traoré uses delicately plucked harmonics that give way to the ngoni and, ultimately, a rhythm that reflects the restless, resigned travel of refugees. “O Niélé”—with Jones lending his earth-moving bass—praises the rising tide of educated, empowered women spreading across West Africa and claiming their own place in society. And then there’s the jazz classic “Strange Fruit,” a tribute to Traoré’s hero Billie Holiday, who first cut the song about lynchings in the American South in 1939. Traoré explains that she also intends her performance as a testimonial to the huge shadow that African slavery still casts across the globe.
But “Sé Dan,” a tribute to the quality of empathy as a division-healing force that’s chanted by author Toni Morrison, may be the song most closely aligned with Traoré’s personal philosophy of sonic and social expansion. In 2009 she founded the Foundation Passerelle to build bridges between impoverished and embattled Mali and the world, hoping to foster opportunities for native Malian artists of all kinds on a global level.
“I chose musicians from all parts of Africa to be in my band for the new album and for touring, to give them opportunities and show the world what they can do, and so they can experience more of the world,” she says. “That is part of my foundation’s goal—to open doors by sharing experiences across cultures.”
After all, it is the pan-global nature of pop music that first led Traoré to begin playing guitar, nearly 25 years ago, in her late teens. “I learned to play by myself, so I made up my own tunings,” she recounts. “By the time I bought lesson books and learned about standard tuning, I was already playing in my particular way. Today I use common tunings, but I also use my own tunings to get what I want from the instrument.”
Initially, that was an old Gretsch or Silvertone—guitars she first heard on American blues and rock recordings. Today, her instrument of choice is a Lâg Imperator 1200, plucked and strummed with her fingers.
“I have to keep nails,” she says. “I don’t like picks. I like physical contact with the strings.” She used her Imperator exclusively on Né So. “It’s very versatile, like a Fender can be. If you go with a Vox amplifier, it has more drive and the high frequencies come out. But the best balance for me is a Fender Vibrolux. Stefano plays a Fender on the record, and the warm sound of the Vibrolux lets my guitar’s sound come between the ngoni and his Fender. In the past I’ve used effects, but not with this album. It’s very organic.
“With the Vibrolux, I cut the high frequencies on the preamp of my guitar and turn up the bass on the amplifier, which is beautiful. I also turn up the amplifier’s high frequencies—so my sound is warm and still can cut out its space.” For contrast, Parish used a Vox AC15 on his tracks.
Traoré explains that she’s always looking for depth—in her messages, her guitar tone, and the sound and delivery of her vocals. “I don’t feel that singing or playing loudly expresses the feelings in my music,” she relates. “I’m always interested in creating my own way.”
This solo performance of Beautiful Africa’s “Ka Moun Ké” from the live music series on Seattle’s KEXP radio, displays Rokia Traoré’s blend of African traditional and American folk blues techniques on guitar as she alternates between fingerpicking a gentle roiling melody and frailing strums on her 1967 Gretsch Country Gentleman.