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Critics Award Rokia Traore (CD cover) nominated in the fRoots Critics Award

Rokia Traoré (UK)

Song : M'Bifo (Radio Edit)
Album : Bowmboi (Label Bleu, France)

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Compared with recent years, 2003 has lacked many really important West African releases into the world market. But even in a good year this one would be outstanding, marking an even bigger jump forward for the artist than she made between her debut Mouneïssa and 2000's Wanita which scooped the Critics' Award for album of the year. Bowmboï sounds like a defining release for an artist who must now be considered world class. Her voice is deeper, matured and soaked with sultry soul, the musicianship is of the first order, the arrangements are groundbreaking and often challenging, and there's constant and accessible variety throughout.

The whole thing is brought together by a full and warm production which finally captures on record how good she can be as a live performer, but with that added studio edge which turns it into quite a masterpiece. The belters, like 'Nienafing' and the balafon and tama powered "hidden" track on the end, are supremely tight and high on energy, conjuring the vision of the animated on-stage Rokia with limbs flying in all directions ("that woman has far more legs than normal people", as somebody aptly commented after one of her London shows). But it's in the slower pieces where the production allows detail to shine - as in her use of vocal harmonies (just occasionally reminiscent of early Zap Mama, but unusual for Mali) and constantly surprising little instrumental colours. Among the outstanding tracks is 'Mariama', where she duets with the long-lost Ousmane Sacko, barely heard of outside Mali since his memorable London and Paris concerts in the mid '80s but obviously still in supreme vocal shape. It's also the only piece which approaches the old griotte staple of praise song, but the instrument textures take it way out there.

Artists like Rokia Traore are an ethnomusicologist's nightmare. People who mix up elements of distinct regional traditions within a country are supposed to be the devil's servants, muddying the gene pool. But Bowmboï is living proof of how, in the hands of an individual with real sensitivity, vision and naked talent, the result can be far greater than the sum of the parts. And so the music gets moved on somewhere else. One time that really happened to Malian music in a big way was with Salif Keita's era-adjusting Soro. Quite possibly this could be equally seismic.

In a way it's probably a shame that, beautiful though they are, a couple of tracks with classical whizzkids Kronos Quartet will probably get too much critical attention. They are indeed lovely, but this isn't a record which gains its right to success from an association with famous westerners. It's all the rest, made in Mali or brewed in one scarily talented Malian's head, which is the big deal.

Ian Anderson for fRoots 2003








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