Sunday, July 06, 2008

ROKIA TRAORE - Tchamantché (Tama)

There's no better definition of critically acclaimed than winning the Critics' Award for album of the year for your previous two CDs. Having managed that feat, Rokia Traoré's new one could have gone either way, with either a laurel-resting repeat of Bowmboï's busy, multi-layered intricacy or yet another sharp stylistic change of the magnitude of that between the 2003 winner and its more reflective, rooted predecessor, Wanita.
The adventuresome Malian has opted for the latter approach on Tchamantché, slowing the pace, stripping the sound right back, generally favouring bluesy electric guitar over the ngoni as lead instrument, and bringing the sultry, breathy side of her vocals right to the fore.
There's a nice crisp feel to the production, reflecting the move to a simpler, understated instrumental arrangement (one ngoni, two guitars, a light dusting of percussion), which serves to bring an intimacy to Rokia's increasingly soulful voice. On Zen (one of two French-language songs) it's almost disconcertingly up close and personal (Carla Bruni's debut CD was surely an influence here), and there's a welcome light, natural touch to her phrasing on the sparsely set A Ou Ni Sou. One potential disappointment for fans of Rokia’s energetic side is that there are no new real belters, although the Zap Mamaesque Tounka is lively and rhythmic, with ngoni-player Mamah Diabaté to the fore and Traoré twisting her voice into new, exciting shapes (almost to a growl at one point, in fact).
Instead, what’s offered is a moody, absorbing and subtly melodious complement to Youssou NDour’s Rokku Mi Rokka release of last year. Like Youssou, Rokia defies categorisation, continuing to take West African music into areas where tradition is merged into what is essentially a Western pop sound - witness the occasional griot-style praise lyric, circular ngoni riff, and appearance of harp as surrogate kora that all fit very naturally with the overall feel of the album. All of which results in often challenging but always rewarding results.
Oh, and look out for a bonus track where Rokia takes on Gershwin in English. She can do conventional too!

Rokia Traoré website

This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.

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