Rokia Kone 2022
Photo: Karen Paulina Biswell / Courtesy of Real World Records

Rokia Koné’s Vocal Artistry Reaches a Global Audience with Solo Debut ‘Bamanan’

On Bamanan, Rokia Koné spreads messages of hope, resistance, and history that further cement her relevance as simultaneously a performer and commentator.

Rokia Koné and Jacknife Lee
Real World
18 February 2022

Within her home country of Mali, Rokia Koné is nicknamed “The Rose of Bamako”, a name that fits the beautiful intensity of her voice. Internationally, she’s best known for her work with supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique, one of the few members present on both of the ensemble’s albums so far and a standout performer, leading tracks like “Queens” and “Mansa Soyari” with aplomb. Now, she ventures into the solo world with Bamanan, collaborating with Jacknife Lee. Lee’s production work has included some of the most critically acclaimed albums of famed acts like U2, R.E.M., and Taylor Swift. Now, he gives Koné the royal treatment, framing her agile voice within a dynamic soundscape of guitars, synths, and drums that offer her the space she deserves.

The opening track, “Bi Ye Tulonba Ye”, begins with an unfolding of synths and Koné rising above them. She reaches out to fellow Malians at home and abroad with a call for unity that picks up as mellow rhythms emerge and the crystal-clear guitar lines of Koné’s longtime guitarist Salif. “Shezita” follows with subtle beats looping at the base of Salif’s playing and Koné’s soulful runs, underscored by the more straightforward choruses of her backing singers.

“Kurunba” is more heated, a dance track with driving near-house beats, old-school funk synths, and Koné at her most energized as she sings against gendered customs of exclusion. Right afterward, “N’yanyan” offers a moment of deep, passionate emotion in the form of a breathtaking keys-and-voice solo. Based on a generations-old song, “N’yanyan” takes on new significance as Koné sings it, bittersweetly, into contemporary turmoil. Her delivery here is singularly poignant, taking the track to a considerable height.

“Anw Tile” has one of the album’s most complex arrangements, with layers of percussion, guitars, and vocals are all intricately interlocked. “Soyi N’galanba” is majestic in its initial simplicity, electronic sounds building into slow spirals behind Koné’s fervid narration of the Epic of Sunjata. This is Koné tapping into longstanding jeli traditions, connecting past to present and future with the help of Lee’s ultra-current touches. “Bambougou N’tji”, too, reflects on history, after which Koné uses “Dunden” to invoke a metaphor for the troubles of married women’s lives.

Both tracks step away from the smooth electronic beds for a moment in favor of jauntier plugged-in sounds, controlled bursts of energy that take us into the album’s closing tracks. “Mayougouba” soars, its club-ready beats buoyant. “Mansa Soyari”, a reworking of a song of the same name on Les Amazones d’Afrique debut République Amazone, is a stunning finale, Koné at her swiftest and yet her most precise, Lee nailing the balancing act between restraint and flash.

Throughout Bamanan, Rokia Koné works deftly, winding her voice into elaborate curves and loops the likes of which would be unfathomable for most vocalists. Her artistry as a singer is impeccable and only accentuated further by Lee’s expertise as he builds a distinctly global stage for her work. Koné spreads messages of hope, resistance, and history that further cement her relevance as simultaneously a performer and commentator. She could not have planned a better debut than Bamanan.

RATING 9 / 10