Brighton Festival 2019
Rokia Traoré has created a spellbinding musical blend of the traditional and the modern, seamlessly woven together with the uniqueness of her Malian heritage. Showcasing the choir and orchestra of the BAMANAN DJOUROU project which supports emerging Malian artists, her band of 5 musicians and 4 backing vocalists brought an exhilarated Brighton to it’s feet with a pure joy and passion that was infectious.
True to her word as a holder and teller of stories, our guest director, Rokia Traoré, carries herself with a regal grace and as she stands proudly at ease in her skin, she reminds us of all that is truly important in the universal language of music. She embodies the incredibly rich wealth and vitality of Mali’s musical and artistic culture and, by her own admission, as the daughter of a diplomat, she needed to maintain a connection to the roots and traditions of her homeland as a way to stay grounded during her transient childhood. This naturally informed her own artistic style as she has one foot firmly in the ancient Malian soil and the other absorbing and integrating the many different cultures she encountered in her global travels. Over her 20+-year career she has shown herself to be a musical maverick and a torchbearer for the importance of artistic expression and its place in culture throughout the world.
Four members of the Ko Saba choir, who make up Traoré’s vocal chorus, led the first few songs of the evening with a five-piece band made up of classical West African instruments Ngoni, kora, calabash and cajon and completed by the modern flavours of guitar and bass. She took the supporting role, which very much set the tone of this, the 2nd of her three performances at the Brighton Dome Concert Hall. The women’s dresses reflected the fusion of traditional and colonial influences with long almost formal style dresses, Traoré in white and the choir in vibrantly patterned fabrics.
When she finally takes centre stage it is to share her paired down version of Bob Marley’s Zimbabwe, her vocals are slow and sparse, giving a trance-like effect while the Ngoni, in the hands of Mamah Diabaté, adds a warm texture and the results are hypnotic…the journey has commenced and will take us through interpretations of songs by Miriam Makeba, Fela, Bob Marley, Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré, nodding to her African and international influences but primarily we are immersed into the richly, intoxicating and powerful past of the Bambara culture through classical folk songs about Mali’s great warrior kings.
The audience is swept along on an ocean of driving rhythms and exquisite harmonies with Traoré in the centre effortlessly weaving enchantments with precision and impeccable composure and restraint, giving the impression she is holding the reins tight to honour the story. There is no separation of music and voice and movement, all aspects are integral and harmonious.
As we pause briefly for reflection she breaks the 4th wall and speaks directly to us for the first time all evening to remind us that tonight is a fund-raiser for her Foundation Passerelle, an arts centre and training facility supporting contemporary arts with a multidisciplinary approach aiming to rebuild the infrastructures and networks that were once a priority for Malian authorities during the 60’s and 70’s, A gentle nudge into the present moment and a reminder of the crushing reality of post-colonial Africa and the grinding geopolitical and internal pressure that has, in recent times threatened to undermine the enormous contribution Malian culture has made to the world. Traoré tells us “African art is for all around the world – except in Africa”. She speaks of the difference between pre colonial & post colonial Mali, how traditionally the arts is a container of the culture with no separation from daily life that acts as a guide and an inspiration socially and how the Mali of today is unsure what to do with its colonial inheritance which has a different and sometimes complicated relationship to music and the arts within the culture.
The message is delivered with such sensitive and impassioned simplicity and straightforward honesty that the unencumbered truth and her heartfelt gratitude settles easily on the ear. Inviting us to be part of the solution, we are even more grateful when the musical journey recommences.
Traoré’s vocal style is very distinctive with it’s quavery and bird-like qualities it is soft, fragile and at times raw with purposeful gritty edges. Equally the fabric of the instrumentation, combining traditional and Western instruments that aren’t usually brought together has become synonymous with her trademark uniqueness.
Traoré sings predominantly in Bambara, but the intensity and raw passion in her powerful voice, and the clear focussed intention translates universally. We may not understand the details of the story but the impression is that we are receiving valuable life lessons. She has been on the international stage for more than 2 decades and has an easy poised command of the room. The subtle spider-like use of her fingers adds to the illusion she creates, spinning the tale before us with her entire being and an almost brutal honesty shown with utmost grace. When we reach the finale Titati, she is jubilant and so are the audience. An exhilarating experience to feel such pure joy spilling over and enveloping the ecstatic crowd who are on their feet singing and dancing In an endless chant: “Je t’aime, mon cheri, je t’aime…
Historically, someone of Traoré’s background would not be encouraged to become a musician this would be taken by the role of the griot, which in the tradition of Bambara is the storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician but true to her somewhat radical nature she is the essence of the griot and her entire performance seems driven by the narrative of the songs. The overwhelming necessity to tell the story overrides any ‘need to please’ resulting in a most remarkable and refreshing absence of ego. It is a genuinely humbling realisation that it is she who feels privileged to serve us.