With her latest album, Malian singer-songwriter Traoré has made something beautiful and moving from the traumas of war and personal crises
Home, and the longing for it after being driven into exile by war, is at the heart of Né So, the sixth and latest album by the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. "In 2014", she sings on the title track, "another five million people fled their homes/forced to seek refuge in town and countries far from home".
But Traoré isn’t commiserating with the plight of the displaced from a safe distance; she instead witnessed it in her homeland, as it descended into civil war. After having lived in Europe with her son for years, she moved back to Mali in 2009. Three years later, war broke out, with Tuareg rebels seizing towns in the north and forming an alliance with an Al-Qaeda-endorsed Islamist group. Malian generals unhappy with the government's handling of the insurgency staged a coup but civilian rule soon was restored. With Islamist forces in control of much of the north and heading toward Bamako, the capital, Mali’s president requested assistance from France, the former colonial ruler. In 2013, French troops recaptured all the towns that Islamists had seized in northern and central Mali.
"Experiencing life in a war-torn country was traumatic", Rokia Traoré acknowledges. "I became aware of how naive I had been, if not guileless, without even knowing it". She also felt that her personal and creative life were in tatters.
"Everything was falling apart", she observes. "It’s never easy to go through tough times, but it is also what makes you grow, and understand why you cling to certain things and give up on some others. At some point, I realized that I was either going to make it, or just add my name to the long list of female artists who ended badly".
With Né So ("home" in Mali's Bambara language), Traoré, 42, has made something beautiful and moving from the traumas of war and her personal crises. To paraphrase Chinua Achebe and William Butler Yeats, things fell apart, but Traoré's center -- her artistry and her commitment to it -- did hold.
Like her previous album, Beautiful Africa (2013), her latest has been produced by John Parish, who also plays guitar and drums on several tracks. Traoré wrote 10 of the 11 songs (the exception being Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit"), rehearsed them in Bamako, and then recorded in Brussels and Bristol with a band that included, with Parish and the Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia, musicians she recruited from throughout West Africa. "I didn’t want an all-Malian band," she says. "I need variety; I need a mix of cultures around me".
From Burkina Faso comes drummer Moïse Ouattara; from the Ivory Coast, bassist Matthieu N’guessan; from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, guitarist Rodriguez Vangama. Ngoni player Mamah Diabaté is the only Malian besides Traoré. Two non-African guests, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones (bass and mandolin) and Nonesuch label mate Devendra Banhart (guitar and vocal) join Traoré on a couple of tracks ("Sé Dan", "Kolokani") and the American jazz bassist Reggie Washington plays on "Strange Fruit".
With her band and guests, Traoré has made an African rock album in which guitars -- often as many as three per song, including Traoré's -- dominate. Concise, melodic guitar phrases—riffs—are the foundation of most of the songs, and drum kits, rather than African percussion, provide the beats. The album has a consistent sound and mood that, on a first listening, might seem a bit too unvarying. Most tracks run three to four minutes, and sometimes Né So feels a bit compressed. The two five-minute-plus selections, "Mayé" and "Kènia", let the musicians stretch and build momentum, whereas some of the shorter ones hit a groove, keep it going, and then stop. But this is a seductive record that pulls you into its world and keeps you there. At times the music evokes the spellbinding "desert blues" of the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré ("Mayé", "Amour"); at others, the guitar parts weave and twine together in ways that suggest a West African take on the Rolling Stones ("Obiké", "Tu Voles").
The blues connection is strong on "Kènia", with Stefano Pilia on lead guitar, backed by Traoré and Vangama. Pilia's sparse, atmospheric guitar, and the rhythm section of Washington and Parish, take "Strange Fruit" into jazz territory, but Diabaté's ngoni, heard in the final bars, connects Holiday's unsparing account of a lynching in the American South to the violence Malians, including Traoré, have witnessed and endured.
With some singers, "Strange Fruit" elicits melodramatic overstatement, a pitfall Traoré avoids with her hushed, tremulous rendering of Holiday's devastating lyrics. And so it goes for the rest of Né So. Whether expressing a refugee's longing for home, or exulting in the pleasures of a happy love affair ("Amour", "Obiké"), or preaching an ethical code of mutual respect ("Sé Dan"), Traoré is never a showy singer. But her subtlety and quiet intensity, and her way of digging deep into a groove, make her a consistently captivating one.