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Rokia Traoré


(Nonesuch; US: 13 Jan 2009; UK: 8 Sep 2008)

It’s a new dawn, a new day, I’m feeling good, etc. I wanted to tell you all about this new Rokia Traoré record, Tchamantché, back in the fall of last year when it was originally scheduled for release, but was made to wait when the release date was pushed back to the first quarter of 2009. I’ve since had a lot of time with this album, the fourth studio album by the Malian singer: time spent in my car (this was the soundtrack to my weekly trips to the Berkshires throughout the month of August), time spent at home watching the autumn sun slowly surrender, time spent on the subway as life pulsed by in its ornery congestion.

Wherever I am, however, I always have the same goosebumpy listening experience, bewitched by the rough plucks of Gretsch and Silvertone guitars and of the n’goni, a West African lute, and by the secret of Traoré‘s voice—a thing so hypnotic and impossibly beautiful that I’m tempted to declare any other voice in 2009 as a superfluous afterthought. I’m serious about this: no record released this year will sound as good as Tchamantché; no record will faithfully represent the intimate sounds of instruments and the human voice; no record will take you so profoundly to that place.

Traoré‘s songs (all of which she wrote for this album, save the Gershwin tune “The Man I Love”) employ the repetitions of traditional African music, but are layered and tempered with Western restraint. This makes everything feel like a fever dream, these riffs and refrains made familiar and communal within a template that never quite allows for boiling point. Occasionally, a guitar will strike out a little flourish or punctuated run, always testing the boundaries of the song—not to break through them, but to be reminded that they’re still there. It’s haunting and soothing at the same time; it’s alchemy of atmosphere and self-discipline.

Traoré sings her songs in Bambara and French, so while I’m told that “Tounka” is about illegal immigration, “Dounia” recounts Malian history, or that “Yorodjan” celebrates African street parties, I don’t exactly think about these things while listening. What I hear is a different language, a language that I’ve commissioned. It’s a language comprised of insinuation and inference, of timbre and chalky sweetness. It expresses comfort and longing and surprise and tender unknowing, not with words but with the sounds of words. When Traoré sings in English, on “The Man I Love”, she sounds better than many contemporary jazz singers. She lacks those histrionic swirls of melody and sub-melody that get tied up in confusing knots. But when she sings in English, suddenly that mysterious transference of secrets is lost, that language that I’m still learning to love. Get me back to that place.


Zeth Lundy has been writing for PopMatters since 2004. He is the author of Songs in the Key of Life (Continuum, 2007), and has contributed to the Boston Phoenix, Metro Boston, and The Oxford American. He lives in Boston.


Rokia Traoré - Dounia
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