Beautiful Africa - Rokia Traoré

Nonesuch

It’s painful to say, but Malian music has become overexposed; not in terms of mainstream consciousness where global music remains a very small niche indeed, but in the scope of the ‘world’ genre the sheer volume of releases from this sub-Saharan country is disproportionate, even in terms of African music alone. It’s a painful pronouncement because despite it all, the music is outstanding and the back stories to most of the recent recordings are fascinating. In a part of the world where the griot caste remain history keepers in the oral tradition, today’s Malian musicians reflect and retell the current upheaval in their homeland; from the Tuareg nomadic blues artists of the new ‘no man’s land’ of the north to the urban new traditionalists of Bamako where the government overthrow by military coup raged on, while some of the latest batch of Malian albums were actually being recorded despite curfews and power outages. All of this adds up to why ‘Beautiful Africa’, the 5th album by Malian singer/guitarist, Rokia Traoré is not just a good record, it’s a smart record. Through enlisting the talents of producer John Parish (who is known for his work with P.J. Harvey, Eels, Tracy Chapman, Sparklehorse and others), Traoré offers up a decidedly non traditional, minimalist, rock record. You won’t hear any calabash or kora; no guest appearances by Vieux Farka Touré or Bassekou Kouyate (although Maman Diabaté’s ngoni is a prominent accent and anchors the album squarely in West Africa). Arrangements are built around simple elements of acoustic and electric guitars, double bass, drums and Jason Singh (a human beatbox). Traorè’s distinctive throaty warble ebbs and swells in three languages; Bambara, the traditional tongue of her heritage, French and a sprinkling of English. Beautiful Africa opens strongly. Recommended listens include the introduction, ‘Lalla’ a humble questioning of one’s existence in this world, and the following track, ‘Kouma’ or ‘Speech’, cautioning to be wary of the power of words. The question burns however, “In light of the unrest in Mali, why call the album ‘Beautiful Africa’?" Rokia explains. “Because these conflicts are mine. They are in these countries which are mine because I am an African. And what you can see in media is like there’s no longer life possible there in these countries. So I’m simply not saying that it’s the best place in the world and it’s the best culture. No. But I have a responsibility for what happened, and I knew I love Africa, of course. And I know I am proud of Africa and trust in Africa and I just wanted to sing that.”