Hay Festival 2013: Music from Africa at the Hay Festival 2013

Rokia Traore: Otherworldly (Photo: Label Bleu)

Rokia Traore: Otherworldly Photo: Label Bleu


I first met Rokia Traore on the bleak concourse of the Gare du Nord on a freezing winter’s day nearly ten years ago: a waif-like figure with a scarf pulled over her shaven head, on her way to a gig in the French provinces. There were no limos or tour buses for her in those days. She travelled standard class with her guitar stowed in the luggage rack.
Rake-thin, with a sculpted, otherworldly beauty and a disconcertingly fragile voice, Traore is just one of the Malian stars who have given this vast and currently embattled country an unparalleled reputation for music. Blending traditional elements with subtle modern influences she creates a sound that is completely contemporary. And she’s come a long way since our first meeting.

Acclaimed as one of Africa’s leading musical artists for her 2009 album Tchemantche, she appeared on Damon Albarn’s recent Africa Express tour backed by Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. She has branched out into acting, taking the leading role in Desdemona, a theatre show co-devised by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and cult director Peter Sellers.

Yet she still has about her something of the student troubadour, who remains eager to learn, responding to new ideas and influences as she does on her current album Beautiful Africa (released 11 April), where the stark plucking of the ngoni, the traditional Malian lute, is offset by touches of dissonant rock guitar and semi-rapped vocals on the title track, on which she proclaims her love of the Mother Continent.
A diplomat’s daughter, she was born in the village of Kolokani, in the arid Sahel, north of the Malian capital Bamako in 1974. But she moved frequently with her father’s work, spending time in Belgium, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, she seemed such a cosmopolitan figure to her teachers in Bamako, they were surprised she could even speak her ancestral language Bamana. Yet after starting a degree in social sciences in Brussels, she dropped out to pursue a career in music, singing almost entirely in Bamana.

In her song “Kote Don”, she describes the contrast between Africa, where knowledge is transmitted in secret, and the West, where “nothing that is thought is inexpressible.” She pictures herself as a tightrope-walker looking down on these two worlds.

“The idea is not to make a choice between them,” she told me, “but to keep on advancing, facing both at the same time. And it’s hard work.”

Beside Traore’s rarefied, intellectual approach, Amadou & Mariam might seem to represent the other end of the Malian musical spectrum: the gutsy rhythms of the street, with Mariam’s keening vocals supported by Amadou’s blistering bluesy guitar.

Both now in their fifties, the couple met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, where they began performing together, marrying in 1980, and achieving local success.

Their early recordings had a rudimentary guitar and vocals format, but their move to Paris in 1996 saw a more sophisticated approach incorporating Arabic strings, Indian tabla drums and other global elements. Their 1998 single “Je Pense à Toi” was a surprise French radio hit. But their real breakthrough came with their 2005 album, Dimanche a Bamako, produced by French politico-rocker Manu Chao, an irresistibly breezy blend of declamatory ballads, street sounds and Chao’s reggae-flavoured pop style. The album sold 300,000 copies – virtually unprecedented for an African record – launching Amadou & Mariam on to a rollercoaster of awards ceremonies, collaborations and support gigs on rockstar tours.

From the outset, Western listeners were struck by the similarity of Amadou’s guitar-playing to the blues sounds of B.B. King and Eric Clapton. When he declared that while he admired those musicians his favourite band was Pink Floyd, the group’s guitarist, David Gilmour, joined the duo’s backing band for a concert at London’s Union Chapel.
Throughout this extraordinary rags to riches story, the core elements in Amadou & Mariam’s music have remained remarkably consistent. There’s a goodhearted sincerity that shines out of their plangent singing and earthy, jangling riffs, which makes you certain of their devotion not only to each other but to the ideals on which traditional Malian society is based: a belief in a shared humanity and that things will work out for the best – God willing. It’s easy to be cynical about such an apparently simple credo, but it’s this sense of enduring humanity, a quality they share with Rokia Traore, which will eventually pull Mali out of its current problems.

Rokia Traore, Amadou & Mariam and Tuareg nomad band Terakaft will be appearing in celebration of Hay Festival’s relationship with its twin town Timbuktu. There will be a special event before Amadou & Mariam’s concert on May 28, looking at how this relationship is being revived following the occupation by fundamentalists that brought irretrievable damage to Timbuktu’s legendary libraries.

To order a printed copy of the full festival brochure, go tohayfestival.org. All events can be booked online or should you have any queries, phone the Box Office on 01497 822 629.

Source – The Telegraph-UK

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