Malian singer Rokia Traore’s gentle voice is filled with sunlight and the sound of a small stream flowing over polished rocks. On first hearing her sing, one is enticed into her extraordinary musical world, which uniquely blends the traditional with the modern, and the driving rhythms of Africa with the sensibilities of a woman who has experienced village life, city life and the entire world. Bowmboi, her third recording, is pure seduction.
Traore was born in Mali, near the Mauritanian border, in 1974. But since her father was a diplomat, she and her family lived in many different places while she was growing up—including Algeria, France, Saudi Arabia and Bamako, the capital of Mali. Although she speaks many languages, including French and English, for the most part she has no interest in singing in any other language other than her native Bamanan. (She made an exception on her second recording Wanita, with the song “Chateau de Sable”, sung in French).
At the age of 12, Traore began to take singing lessons. Growing up in so many countries, she felt lonely and different; music became her source of interest as well as a retreat from the feeling of being an outsider. Because she did not come from the griot class of musicians in Mali, she did not experience the taboo of not being able to listen to music that was not “traditional”. Instead she grew up with an interest in a broad range of musical styles and genres. Thus her music often defies being categorized. While she uses traditional instruments in addition to her acoustic guitar, she combines then in ways that haven’t been done before. Most noteworthy is her use of the balafon, a wooden xylophone, and the ngoni, a three-stringed lute. This was a groundbreaking innovation on her first release Mouneïssa (Label Bleu/Indigo). On her second release Wanita (also on Label Bleu/Indigo), she again broke with tradition and combined the n’goni with the kora. Although the Manding and Bamanan people of West Africa play these instruments, they were never combined before Traore made this radical move.
Traore in this way asserts her independence. She is a strong woman who composes poetic songs about her life, the plight of children and women in this world, the fate of those who would seek fame and lose their heart, and the political situation in the world today. She is interested in showing the world that there is much more to Africa than AIDS, poverty, political unrest and famine, that there is a rich culture and diversity within this vast continent.
With Traore’s growing confidence in her ability to write, perform, and record, her third recording Bowmboi shows her as an increasingly important artist in not only the West African music scene but on the world stage as well—not that she hasn’t received international acclaim since the very beginning. She won Radio France International’s prize for “African Discovery of the Year” in 1997, and Wanita won her various awards. Since her first recording, she has done almost non-stop touring around the world.
Instead of recording Bowmboi in Paris, Traore decided to record most of the album in Mali. Although the recording is extremely professional, with Traore’s obvious high standards for perfection, it has an airy feeling, as one can hear ambient sounds of Africa, including the sounds of children playing outside.
For two tracks of Bowmboi, Traore traveled to San Francisco and recorded with the Kronos Quartet. Although this combination could have been a disaster, it was not. The two tracks with the Quartet are actually two of the loveliest on the recording, especially “Mantan.” The Kronos Quartet have played with many traditional musicians around the world, and even though they are classically trained they seem to know instinctively how to blend their sensibilities with the artists that they are working with. On Bowmboi they combine their violins and cello with Traore’s sweet-voiced style to a lovely and poignant effect.
One of the best tracks on the album is “Mariama,” where Traore sings with Malian diva Ousmane Sacko. The two trade off verses to this incredible song/poem written by Traore: “In the game of life, all are not equal / Some have much/ Others are refused the barest minimum.”
Although it isn’t necessary for the enjoyment of Traore’s music, the liner notes include her lyrics in both Bamanan and English. The cover of the album is also graced with a photograph of this lovely, dignified, and graceful young woman who has become a remarkable voice in the musical world.