Mali's other grande dame
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The Independent Culture

There has been a debate raging in world music circles of late: of the two pre-eminent Malian divas Rokia Traoré and Oumou Sangare, who is the better singer-songwriter? Of course, both women are quite different in style, looks, and talent: Sangare in her late thirties, the champion of women's rights, a flamboyant dresser with a powerhouse vocal range; and Traoré, a diminutive figure in her twenties, armed with a guitar, harmonising stinging modern lyrics accompanied by traditional instruments. Traoré is the indie alternative to Sangare's mainstream, stadium rock sound, and she proves unequivocally in tonight's astonishing performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that she is the new dominant force in Malian music.

Traoré won the hearts of world music critics when her second album Wanita (on France's prestigious Label Bleu) was voted 2000 album of the year in the annual fRoots critics' poll. In the same year she wooed Womad goers with a mesmerising set on the Village Stage. She's in the UK again to promote her latest album, Bomboï, which far surpasses Wanita in terms of musical breadth, attitude and production quality. Arriving on stage accompanied by a beautiful female singer, Traoré, replete in striking silver halter-neck top and flowing, layered skirt, immediately captivates with her striking Malian features offset by a shaven head, big eyes and warm smile. One is reminded of Sinead O'Connor, shaven-haired, laying her soul bare to the world. In fact the comparison isn't so far-fetched, as both women are slight in figure, quietly spoken, almost shy in nature, but transformed on stage. Traoré's first song, "Kélé Mandi" consists of two voices harmonising over simple acoustic guitar. Traoré sings of cultural tolerance, imploring individuals to express themselves, "but do it with gentleness and tolerance, since all that you impose upon me with force, will only leave the imprint of your violence and arrogance."

Born into a well-educated Malian family, Traoré now lives in Paris, although much of the new album was recorded in Mali on traditional instruments. As Traoré launches into her next song "Sara", she is joined by two ngoni (a banjo-like lute made from hollowed-out wood with dried skin stretched over it) players, balaba (a larger version of the balafon - a Malian xylophone with keys cut from rosewood, suspended on a bamboo frame over gourd resonators), percussion, and bass. The set draws largely from the new album, but captures re-energized versions of "Yéré Uolo" and "Yaafa N'Ma" (the latter with electric guitar adding to the intensity of the building polyrhythms).

Before Traoré launches into "Niénafing" she explains that the song is about nostalgia for her Malian homeland, with lyrics stating: "Oh people of Mali, even far from you, your values go with me." The accompanying driving rhythms are trance-inducing, with Traoré inviting the audience to feel her anguish. Her stage presence is quite remarkable in terms of maturity and confidence, but one forgets that her debut album Mouneissa appeared in 1998 and was championed by Mali's greatest export, Ali Farka Touré.

The set is rapturously received by the audience, but Traoré saves her best till last, with a frenetic version of "Yan Kadi" in which she very sweetly, and almost coyly, asks the seated audience to get up and dance. This is followed by an epic rendition of "Niangaran Foly" which sees Traoré dancing wildly, mouth open, eyes sparkling, making the large stage her own. The audience leave in no doubt that this was one of the best shows of the year, and that they have just had the honour of witnessing a true star in the making.