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Rokia Traor: Bowmbo

Eyal Hareuveni By

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Rokia Traoré presents an entirely different role model for an African female singer. She reflects on her Malian tradition and sings exclusively in her native language, Bamanan, which she chose because of its particular richness in metaphor and texture. But as she declares on "K''tê Don," from her third release, Bowmboï: "I respect my ancestors/But tradition is not infallible." She cherishes the social harmony in Mali:

Who dares say that Mali has nothing to offer?
Come with me, come discover the land of my ancestors.
Where ancient ancestral links forged with humor and respect.


But as a diplomat's daughter she moved between Mali's capital, Bamako, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and she now lives in Paris. She uses West African indigenous acoustic instruments, but she feels at home when backed by the Kronos Quartet. Traoré portrays herself as an worldly, cosmopolitan woman who addresses relationships—personal, cultural, and even global—with natural authority when she sings on the one of the disc's most arresting songs, "Kèlè Mandi":

I bring what makes me different to you,
Give me a bit of what you are,
But do it with gentleness and tolerance,
Since all that you impose upon me with force
Will only leave the imprint of
Your violence and your arrogance


Traoré's words and imagery offer insight on social conscience and maturity. On "Mariama" she laments the death of Mariama Kaba and humbly sings:

We arrive with empty hands,
And the day we leave,
We go the same way.
Even our bodies are only on loan,
They age, obeying the inexorable laws of time,
And when their time comes, they feed the worms.


Bowmboï is Traoré's most accomplished recording to date, after Mouneïssa (Indigo, 1998) and Wanita (Indigo, 2000). It's much more refined, vocally and musically. Her arrangements of the ten songs on this disc are sparse, focusing on her delicate and lulling vocals, usually backed by female vocalists who solidify Traoré's fragile delivery.

She contrasts her tone with the coarse vocals of Malian singer Ousmane Sacko on "Mariama," and on "Manian" and "Déli" she experiments with multitracking her voice to great effect. The n'goni, the West African hunter's harp, is the main instrument, and most of the songs feature two n'goni players, who also dictate the rhythm of the songs.

The two most astounding tracks are the collaborations with the Kronos Quartet. On the minimal "Manian," her multi-tracked vocals add a repetitive motif, as if the piece was composed by an African twin of Phillip Glass. The title track that closes this recording is a haunting slow piece that asks for more collaborations—or a second volume of Kronos Quartet's Pieces Of Africa (Nonesuch, 1992).

Traoré offers a beautiful global vision that combines past, present, and future, tradition and innovation, African and non-African elements—from a compassionate and confident feminine perspective. Warmly recommended.


Track Listing: M'Bifo; Sara; K?'t

Personnel: Djibril Camara: bolon (6); Sidiki Camara: percussion (2,3,9); Alou Coulibaly: percussion (3,4,7); Mamah Diabat

Title: Bowmbo | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Nonesuch Records


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