Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rokia Traoré

  • Wanita [Indigo, 2000] A-
  • Bowmboï [Nonesuch, 2004] A-
  • Tchamantche [Nonesuch, 2009] A-
  • Beautiful Africa [Nonesuch, 2013] B+
  • Né So [Nonesuch, 2015] *

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Wanita [Indigo, 2000]
Where an older younger generation might have equated musical self-definition with rock, this daughter of the Malian elite engages tradition in a culture where music is culture's engine, modernizing so subtly that Euro-American folkies will believe she's toning things down just for them. Her deepest innovations are in the shades of her willowy soprano, a delicate thing by the wailing standards of the female griots whose intonations she modulates--and whose ideology she injects with a female pride they won't admit, even praising useless drudges who can't procreate. Other times her moralism is stiffer, but her music never is. It's the image of an African voice bending neocolonialism to its own knowledge and needs. A-

Bowmboï [Nonesuch, 2004]
Most of the musicians are Malian, but on just two songs the dread Kronos Quartet establish the size, clarity, and justness of this young pretender's ambitions. Not merely because both tracks are strikingly beautiful--although Kronos recorded in Marin County with a separate producer, they fit right in on a collection whose delicate formalism seems deeply African despite its intermittent groove, and also specifically Malian (the lyrics are in Traoré's native Bamanan, a minority tongue). Overrated overreachers like Susana Baca and Milton Nascimento couldn't equal the lithe discretion that cloaks her sense of drama if they had the sense to try. The translations are welcome--this is a strong, modern woman. But before long that vulgar manifestation of the music's meaning is subsumed in sound. A-

Tchamantche [Nonesuch, 2009]
With her lissome delivery, contemplative tempos, and quietly post-traditional arrangements, this daughter of Malian privilege is so subtle she can slip past you. But compared to zapless mama Marie Daulne, established businessperson Angelique Kidjo, and Les Biracial Nubians, she appropriates Euro-American notions of art and indeed gentility with taste as well as wealth. The one called "Zen" is about Buddhism, not some African kinship concept we've never heard of. She covers "The Man I Love" in English like she's got a right, then seques to a praise-chant in Bamanan prominently featuring the word "Billie." And there's also one about "nazarras," meaning Europeans--a "source de souffrance," meaning "source of suffering." A-

Beautiful Africa [Nonesuch, 2013]
Traore has been walking a tightrope since her 2000 debut, and it's not getting easier. There's limited outreach in any tongue to songs about your right to pursue a musical career albeit--translation from the Bamanan provided--"Brought up by the rules of the nobility/Forbidden to sing or speak in public." Escaped from the Malian troubles in Paris, she recorded her fourth album with Polly Jean Harvey adjutant John Parish, and musically they get results--from the opener on out, Scottish drummer Seb Rochford and Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia make Mali rock in ways unknown to Oumou Sangare or Bassekou Kouyate, and Traore is less pretty in turn. But non-Bamanan speakers may well find that her supple vocals are no more engaging should they follow her unremarkable spiritual tribulations in English or French. And non-Bamanan speakers who only start paying attention with the rote English-language populism of the continental and womanist praisesongs at the end may never go back and read along. B+

Né So [Nonesuch, 2015]
Watch out, lady--even sung more lissomely if not cannily than a well-respected Billie Holiday, humanitarian homilies requiring lyric-booklet translation will eventually put your respectful cadre to sleep. ("Né So," "Sé Dan") *