rokia traore

Rokia Traoré currently prefers playing her Lâg Imperator 1200 onstage and in the studio, but in the past she’s performed on a 1967 Gretsch Country Gentleman and a Silvertone 1448. Photo by Danny Willems

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.

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