Album of the week : Beautiful Africa - Rokia Traoré

On Beautiful Africa, Malian songwriter and guitar slinger Rokia Traoré unleashes the fiery rocker she’s been nurturing since her teens. On four previous offerings she established herself as a wildly inventive and diverse songwriter, most notably on 2008′s Tchamanché. She recorded Beautiful Africa with producer John Parish in the U.K. Global fusions can sometimes feel forced or mannered but this is a splendidly fluid, unconstrained combination, with Traoré’s bright, poetic expressions given ample space to breathe. Parish keeps her guitar and Mamah Diabaté’s lithe n’goni right up front in his mix, just underneath her distinctive, supple voice. Her employment of a female backing chorus acts as both a call-and-response vehicle and as rhythmic and harmonic counterpart. Drummer Sebastian Rochford adds weight, punch, and dimension as well

Global fusions can sometimes feel forced or mannered but this is a splendidly fluid, unconstrained combination, with Traoré’s bright, poetic expressions given ample space to breathe (translations are supplied for the Bambara-language lyrics) and West African instrumentation including Mamah Diabaté’s lithe ngoni strings.

These nine songs are sung in French, Bambara, and occasionally English — sometimes in the same tune. The music walks the line between the celebratory, the tender, the angry, and the sorrowful. Despite its rock leanings, Malian folk traditions are ever present in its DNA — check ‘Kouma’, where the vocals and droning desert blues accompanied by sparse percussion create the theme. Halfway through, Traoré’s guitar screams through, distorted and frantic

‘Sikey’’s layered rock guitars, bassline, and drums create a staggered, syncopated groove, while Traoré and her singers’ voices provide an alternate rhythm and dialogue. The taut breaks by Rochford and the haunting n’goni add ballast to her forceful, stinging six-string. Halfway through, a bridge offers a different melody, almost a different tune; it shifts the tempo and harmonic focus before returning to the main theme.

‘Ka Moun Kè’, which follows, is a soulful African pop tune; it’s grainy and infectious with killer guitar reverb and a hypnotic rhythm track. Parish keeps things raw and lively; the feel of these tunes being played by a live band is ever present

The title track is exceptionally funky. Traoré uses a wah-wah pedal and plays straight at Rochford’s snare and hi-hat. He lays out numerous breaks — yet remains firmly in the pocket. When she sings “More intense than ever,” there’s a snarl in her words as she addresses the chaotic, troubling situation in her once peaceful homeland

For those who long for tradition, the ballads such as ‘N’Téri’ and ‘Sarama’ offer melodies whose roots are centuries old. Traoré’s voice is particularly wondrous on the lovely, delicate ‘N’Teri’, where she demonstrates not only total melodic command but also a deft ability to expand and extrapolate the song’s fundamental theme. Her interaction with backing vocals, sometimes a form of call and response, at others feeling like a fully integrated small vocal ensemble, is fascinating throughout. The insistent ‘Tuit Tuit’ begins with an inspired chorus of what seems like birdsong, and ‘Sarama’ is among the most searing ballads in Traoré’s songbook

While Beautiful Africa is her most ‘commercial’ recording - as in, friendly to Western audiences - it nevertheless follows directly the explorations her music has articulated from the beginning. It feels like a natural step, consequently expanding the margins of Malian roots music and rock and pop simultaneously

Buy it here

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May 03, 2013

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