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Parallel lives and diverging rhythms - Rokia Traoré
September 14, 2008
When these two singers
from different regions of Africa released their debut albums 10
years ago, it was clear that they were not intending to fit any
mould of what singers from their respective countries might be expected
to sound like. Part of the explanation could be gleaned from their
parallel biographies - the parents of both singers had lived
in Europe and/or North America, exposing their children to classical
music, jazz and Western pop songs as well as to their own musical
fourth album, Tchamantché, feels like her best so far, and
may be the one to draw in those disbelievers in the Flat Earth Society
who defiantly insist that they 'don't listen to world music'. We
might even see the singer's face on the front cover of the Wire,
in recognition of a true experimentalist.
Although she is from
Mali, on the western edge of the Sahara, Rokia doesn't have the
commanding voice of so many of that country's great singers, who
can be heard half a kilometre away. Like those film actors who understand
that if they remain motionless the camera will find emotion in their
faces, Rokia is a consummate master of the microphone who knows
it will hear her whispers, reveal her secrets and convey her intentions.
She's a peerless studio singer, and one of the best musical arrangers
of her generation.
Previously, Rokia used
traditional African instruments in unorthodox ways. On Tchamantché,
she introduces electric guitars and bass, human beatbox and the
American percussionist Steve Shehan, to create a sparse, moody sound
of her own that truly defies categorisation.
As its title suggests,
'Aimer' is in French, but she doesn't sound like any other French
singer I've ever heard. Unlike the three languorous songs that precede
it, 'Koronoko' is more urgent and insistent, sung by a veritable
vocal group of Rokias, interweaving, overlapping, provoking and
answering each other.
If Rokia is steadily
moving away from familiar Malian idioms, the Zimbabwe-based singer
Chiwoniso has moved in the opposite direction. Her debut album was
made with the instrumentation and rhythms of a rock group, but on
Rebel Woman it's the sound of the mbira that rules the roost, whether
played literally on an acoustic thumb piano or evoked in the rhythmic
melody lines of guitarist Louis Mhlanga.
Since those heady days
in the late Eighties, when the hypnotic and joyous music of Thomas
Mapfumo and the Bhundu Boys so inspired the Radio 1 DJs John Peel
and Andy Kershaw, Zimbabwe has almost disappeared from our musical
map; hardly surprising, given the deterioration of the country's
government and economy. So there is something miraculous about this
album which conjures those optimistic times. How did it get made
despite an imploding currency? And how does the singer retain that
smile in her voice without ever turning her gaze from what she sees?
Several songs on the
album bring to mind the infectious lilt of Zimbabwe's great singer
Oliver Mtukudzi, so it's no surprise to find the name of Oliver's
drummer, Sam Mataure, credited on almost all the tracks. If the
lively, good-natured sound of the music seems incongruous in the
context of what Zimbabwe is like right now, it's because Chiwoniso
refuses to let circumstances determine her mood and behaviour. As
she makes her plea in 'Nguva Ye Kufara': 'Let me be happy, this
is the time/Let me dance, dance today.' The striking 'Matsotsi'
is sung from the point of view of an unemployed man stuck in the
city: 'How do I go home to my village/ If I have no money for the
bus fare?/ How do I travel, I feel I am an orphan.' (It should be
made clear that these lyrics are translations, although Chiwoniso
does also sing some songs in English, and is just as convincing
when she does.)
West Africa already has
more than its fair share of great contemporary African artists,
and with Tchamantché Rokia Traore shows that she belongs
up there with the best. Where Rokia has gone out on an experimental
limb, Chiwoniso has chosen to make an easily accessible collection
of songs that might once have been branded 'commercial'. Both impressive
albums represent significant milestones in the careers of artists
whose talent has not yet been fully acknowledged. Their time has
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