Rokia Traoré - The natural ascent to global superstardom

Mali's Rokia Traoré challenged tradition in order to fulfil her fantasy of a career in music. Prior to a prestigious slot at Womad, she explains to Elisa Bray how she forged a distinct, organic direction
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If African music is reaching out to a broader – and younger – music-loving audience, with Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen's rising popularity, the Malian star Rokia Traoré can only broaden the appeal. With her latest album, Tchamantché, adventurously blending the musical traditions of Mali with Western rock and blues music, she is anything but a typical Malian star. It would also help to explain why, since her compelling performance on Later... with Jools Holland in April, she has attracted fans in such wide-ranging artists as the jazz chanteuse Madeleine Peyroux and Manchester indie-rock band Doves' frontman Jimi Goodwin.

Slender, elegant and with a smile that lights up a room, the 35-year-old Traoré is currently in Paris, although she divides her time between the home in Amiens that she shares with her producer husband, and her base in Bamako, Mali, the centre of Africa's music scene. Soon she heads for the UK to play a clutch of festivals including the number one world music festival Womad. There, she will be reunited with her Malian peers, including the Wassoulou songstress Oumou Sangare and the acclaimed kora player Toumani Diabaté – although, as she points out, she does not comfortably slot into the close-knit Malian music scene.

"I know all the Malian musicians who have an international career. We have a good relationship, but we don't have the same way of thinking and making music and I'm not from the same background as all these musicians," she says. "I have a very special one among the Malian artists because I'm not from a national orchestra or a griot." The griots she mentions are a traditional group of Africans born into music. Traoré, by contrast, as a member of a high-born family, is discouraged as a woman from performing music in public – let alone dancing, which she is prone to doing joyously and gracefully onstage. Unlike other Malian musicians who started learning and performing as young as three, she had no musical training. She did, however, have music in the blood – her father played saxophone in a national orchestra, the Kati Orchestra, before giving it up to become a diplomat. He gave her her first guitar.

"I learned by myself how to play guitar and I learned singing by listening to other music, not just African music, but different styles – classical, blues and jazz – with my dad." She reels off a list of influences showing her lack of musical boundaries, artists she listened to as she taught herself: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday (whose "The Man I Love" she gives a reworking of on Tchamantché), Louis Armstrong, Otis Redding, Miriam Makeba, the composer Wagner, Serge Gainsbourg, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Later on, she became a protégé of the great Malian musician Ali Farka Touré. "I learned for pleasure, it was just a dream," she recalls. "I thought I would become a journalist. I wanted to write some books on music in Africa and the link between African music and European music. For me that was a possibility. I couldn't believe that I could have a professional career in music. I didn't believe it would be possible."

She took up a sociology degree at university in Brussels, but spent much of her time performing. Eventually, she quit studying to return to Mali and pursue a career in music – to her parents' displeasure. "I was so excited because I knew what I wanted to do, but they weren't happy. My father told me that Mali needs more intellectual people than musicians. He told me, 'You are making a big mistake.' He told me everything he did for his seven children and for the country. He wanted us to have high degrees and go back to Mali and work for the country and he couldn't understand my decision. I was very upset. Now all that is in the past, but it was very hard in the beginning to make them accept my choice."

Now they are proud of their daughter, as they have watched her career go from strength to strength. Traoré released her fourth album in September to rave reviews, and it won her prestigious awards, including Best World Album at the Victoires de la Musique (the French Grammys), and Best Artist at the 2009 Songlines Music Awards.

When Traoré started performing in Mali, she was the first woman there to sing, play guitar, write her own lyrics and compose her own songs. Traditionalists on the Mali scene responded negatively, but she admits that her originality made it easier for her to capture people's attention and support than other acts trying to break through. "It was not a very female area – I could feel that people weren't used to working with women. I can speak about problems – of course, everything wasn't easy – but for someone who didn't know her dreams would come true, the most important thing for me was to be a professional musician and release albums. My dream is still coming true – getting on stage each time is something great."

As the daughter of a diplomat, Traoré travelled between continents throughout her youth, living for stretches of time in Brussels, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and New York. If she feels almost an outsider in the music world, she has been familiar with that sense of detachment since her teenage years.

"When I was a teenager that was hard because as a teenager you are all the time looking for your personality and in general you want to be like everyone around you. In new countries you are kind of lost – more than teenagers who stay in the same place for all of their lifetime. It's very hard, but now this is a chance for me to be between several cultures as I am. It's very natural in my life, in everything I do, I can be very Malian, European or Asian."

She sounds like the archetypal 21st-century Westerner living in a multi-cultural city, and it comes across in her culture-crossing music. Her experimental tack on Tchamantché sees the sound of the vintage Gretsch guitar, favoured by American blues players, stand before traditional African instruments such as the ngoni. Add to this a contemporary pop rhythm section, an often Francophone breathy vocal, and the use of three languages – Bambara, French and English – and you have a melting pot of cultures.

"I need to feel things very naturally," she explains, the word "natural" cropping up several times during conversation. "I think I am modern and traditional at the same time. All of this exists in me at the same time, in my education, my personality, the way I've been travelling all the time, the type of father and mother I have, and the education I've had. All that definitely places me in the middle of traditional culture and modern culture and in the same way between Western culture and African culture. That's my life every day and my music is like that."

When she was putting together her first album at the age of 23, she realised she needed to go back to Africa to her roots to learn about traditional instruments because she had never worked with them. Still, a lack of experience enabled her to develop her own orchestration instead of following a template.

"I had to create this special orchestration with traditional instruments, but the orchestration wasn't traditional because I put it together from instruments people didn't put together in Mali. I found my own approach to Malian music. Even if it sounded like traditional music for many people I know it wasn't traditional at all." But it was the guitar, her first instrument, that she had a yearning to return to on the last album. "I wanted to do something more blues and rock and something finally more natural for me. I missed my guitar. I didn't want to do something more modern, I just wanted to come back to the guitar."

The sociology studies find a way into her lyrics; they're the reason behind her writing about "the life of everyday". "People are all the time singing the same thing, and the songs are about the same aspect of the problem without ever thinking or pushing people to see some other aspects of the problem," she says. She has written lyrics that she says will never exist as a song. She cannot bring herself to release lyrics about child soldiers as she feels the profits she could make from selling the song would be immoral. When she starts to talk about the injustices, she tears up. It's a subject that she finds even more upsetting now that she is a mother herself, of a three-year-old son.

Traoré is preparing to spend more time in Mali, to concentrate on the music foundation she set up to help people organise gigs in Africa and to do for others "what Europe did for me and my career".

"I'm from a poor country" she says. "And culture must be for free. It's very expensive in this country."

While her star rises, she says that when back home in Mali, she enjoys returning to the market in the morning as she used to as a child, buying the vegetables she'd help cook for her parents and siblings. "People ask me if I'm Rokia Traoré and that's great, but I've never had a bodyguard. I know some Malian artists have one so I think they must be afraid, but for now I feel very comfortable in the street and my life is normal and I love that. I love to be natural and I don't want to be the kind of person who has nothing to do with the reality of the everyday anymore."

If she wants to be rich, it's to fund her foundation and future projects.

'Tchamantché' is out now on Nonesuch

CULTURALLY CRUCIAL: 10 OF WOMAD'S BEST
By Nick Hasted

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
These Damon Albarn-adored Chicago brothers (above) have used guerrilla gigs to spread the word on their dance- floor-filling, hip-hop-filtered jazz. Eight brass-players plus drums, they swing and sweat.

Youssou N'Dour
Senegal's superstar first played Womad in 1986, and still only his compatriot Baaba Maal rivals him as Africa's leading light. With his Super Etoile band in tow, hard dancing is guaranteed.

Ethiopiques
The forgotten early-1970s jazz and soul of "Swinging Addis Ababa" is the most gorgeous musical rediscovery of recent years. Three of its stars, including Alemayehu Eshete (below) make a rare and unmissable appearance.

Eliades Ochoa
This survivor of Cuba's much-depleted Buena Vista Social Club will be warmly greeted. That accidental super-group aside, his roots lie deep in the barrios, at the birth of Castro's revolution.

The Black Arm Band
Twenty-eight-piece, mostly Aboriginal assembly, including the veteran Archie Roach and his wife, Ruby Hunter, both members of Australia's Stolen Generation, removed as children to white foster homes. Culturally crucial, reputedly riotous live.

Dub Colossus
This happy side-effect of the Ethiopiques phenomenon sees Transglobal Underground's Nick Page help mix the 1970s genres of Addis jazz and Kingston dub, which prove highly compatible.

Jim Moray
English folk's most adventurous star, whose last album, 'Low Culture', saw him open the traditional ballad "Lucy Wan" to council-estate grime reinvention, and cover XTC.

Solomon Burke
The last great Southern soul singer's mighty voice will floor you. His impish spirit belies the huge frame that these days keeps him seated in an on-stage throne he's earned.

Gochag Askerov
One of Womad's regular treats has been the chance to hear voices of almost unearthly, un-Western strangeness. Azerbaijan's rising star could be next.

Mamer
From the violence-torn Xinjiang province in China's Muslim far West, Mamer filters the shepherd songs he grew up with through prog-rock and alt.country. Bringing distant headlines to life, but defiantly individual: that's Womad.

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