When the Georgia Straight reaches Rokia Traoré in the capital of Scotland, the strikingly skinny singer is just about to dig in to an unfamiliar regional delicacy: a plateful of fish and chips.
“With mayonnaise,” she stresses, giving the dip’s name a decidedly Franco-Malian spin. “It’s the kind of thing I eat once a year at most, but it’s great that I get to experience it.”
She’s also about to experience an almost equally unusual environment: a no-frills Edinburgh rock club. One of the biggest stars in West African music, Traoré is more accustomed to headlining concert halls or sharing stadium stages with the likes of Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. But a less glamorous setting has its advantages, she insists.
“It’s about music, and that’s it—and we’re in that kind of place,” she says, happily enough. But the downscale environment isn’t entirely inappropriate, for on her gorgeous new release, Beautiful Africa, Traoré essentially reinvents herself as an indie rocker, although one whose use of calabash percussion and the hunter’s harp known as the ngoni retains the delicate effervescence of her home country’s traditional music.
On previous efforts, Traoré explains, she employed the ngoni and the marimba-like balafon—which come from different regions of Mali and aren’t usually used together—to forge a new kind of African roots music. Eventually, though, she found that her experiments had an unexpected drawback.
“It brought me very far from guitar, which is my first instrument,” she explains. “And from rock music, which gave me the will to make music my work and, yes, become a musician. So I missed my guitar; I wanted to play more guitar and compose some music based on guitar. And also it became difficult to fly after September 11 in New York. Travelling with the big balafon, which is bigger than a double bass, became a real project. So I decided to change.”
She first made the shift on 2008’s Tchamantché, but Beautiful Africa features a more thorough intertwining of rock and African music, thanks in part to the presence of producer and lead guitarist John Parish.
“I’m definitely lucky that he wanted to work with me,” Traoré says of Parish, who’s best known for his work with PJ Harvey. “And one of the positive things with John is there’s never too much. On this record there’s only what is necessary, and nothing more than that. It makes for a whole new sound with the way I sing, which isn’t traditional Malian singing—and for me it’s a very attractive experience.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the cosmopolitan vocalist’s desire to present a balanced picture of Mali and of Africa in general. Although she’s not shy about speaking out against injustices ranging from government corruption to the Islamist insurgency that threatens her country’s northern provinces, her new record’s title track proclaims her deep love of African life, while the unspeakably gorgeous “Sarama” is a lilting song of praise to the women of Bamako.
“I like talking about Africa,” Traoré says when asked if she sees herself continuing in her diplomat father’s footsteps. “And there are some things I know about this continent and about Mali that other people don’t know—and can’t know, because they don’t have my double culture. That gives me a position where sometimes I have to explain some things or express some feelings—as is the case concerning Beautiful Africa’s connection to the situation in Mali. But I don’t think I am an ambassador. I do my work every day just for me.”
Spoken like a true rock star—and a proud African, too.