“Maybe it’s very hard for you to stand up and move with us for so long…. But can we try?” Parisian-based singer/dancer/guitarist Rokia Traore politely implored the sold-out Zankel Hall crowd.
16 Oct 2004: Zankel Hall New York
Perhaps we had been too dazzled by her beauty and talent to notice where our asses had been for the previous hour, but when asked, we obliged. Our reward manifested instantly as the balafon, a type of xylophone, kicked in. It cued the rest of the eight-piece band to lay it in for a two-song, forty-minute encore that shook this midtown acoustic wonderland to the core.
The 30 years old Traore, rockin’ a slinky black and white top and stylish skirt that she designed herself (Rokiawear anyone?), expertly demonstrated how one might move to her brand of Malian funk. True, a few of the gray-hairs slipped outside (the Yankees/Red Sox game was still on), but most stayed to shake (however arhythmically) whatever tail they had left.
Give a listen to her spectacular third album Bowmboi and it’s easy to brand this world phenom a folk singer, rely as she does on acoustic strings, multi-layered percussion and a lush voice.
She sings solely in her native Bamanan, beginning the concert simply enough, center-stage, backed only by her acoustic guitar and the harmony of backup vocalist Sylvia Laube. By the time the rest of her band rolled onboard for the second song “Sara,” this quaint simplicity was jettisoned. Everything now revolved around the fundamental maintaining of The Groove.
Much has been said about the blues coming from Mali, but what about the funk? Think of the Pharaohs and Earth, Wind, and Fire circa 1970, sans horns, back when they were trying to bring the funk home to Africa. Swap electric guitars for N’gonis (West African lutes) and the drum kit for a Calabash (a bass-heavy gourd). Then add a djembe, an occasionally-used talking drum, on top of an oft-slapped electric bass and wah-wah acoustic guitar played by a white boy—complete with Lee Oskar afro and the nickname “Disco.” You get the gist.
No she doesn’t have the extra-terrestrial vocals of well-known countrywoman Oumou (as in Sangare) or Senegalese legend Youssou (as in N’dour). In fact, the only criticism is that her soprano was sometimes lost in the thick mix. But her stage presence, vocal phrasing and dancing more than made up for it. She’s more Tina Turner, back in the day, than contemporary Erykah Badu.
Though Mr. N’dour made what I thought to be an untoppable statement when he christened Carnegie’s new musical playground at it’s opening last fall, there is a new star on the block. She goes by the name Rokia. And she can rock it.