The gig where you could have heard an anchovy drop

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CENTURIES AGO, her ancestors resisted the Islamicisation of the Malian empire, shocked at the rape and murder of the advancing zealots. Her family is Muslim now, in a liberal way. She is not a member of the lower musician caste, the Griots, but rather a patron of Griots. Her father was a diplomat, during her childhood, Malian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. A powerful memory of Saudi consists of looking out of her window at the crowds on the way to the mosque on Friday, veiled women shepherded by the whip-wielding religious police.

On stage, Rokia Traore is svelte and elegant, far from the voluminously robed Griottes of traditional Malian praise-singing. When she and her cousin, and backing vocalist, Astan sway together to the rhythm, one can glimpse a languid West African ancestry to the Ikettes. Her songs however, mainly self-written, deal with austere and righteous subject matter, the inadvisability of divorce, the importance of honouring parents, the inevitability of death. Lately she's been getting more feminist. One of her newest items, "Towsoni" (the little bat), is a traditional baptism song likening a housewife to a bat, hovering in the corners unoccupied by the males she is there to serve. A pretty account of daily reality, according to the song, a small tragedy to Traore.

How would she put over sadness and irony to a pizzeria full of strangers who didn't understand a word? Just by singing was how. Traore launched into "The Little Bat", her light melodic voice and acoustic guitar backed by Astan's delicate harmony, and within a verse the room was so rapt you could have heard an anchovy drop.

Rokia Traore is self-taught musically, though aided by powerful friends, notably world-star guitarist Ali Farka Toure. She has been free to create her own mix - no kora or cascading Mandingo melodies, but an unorthodox mix of the deep-voiced wooden balafon xylophone and dry plucking of the four-string hide-covered ngoni. The result is an ensemble that rides gently behind the harmony vocals (another Traore innovation) but can achieve levels of virtually Beefheartian funkiness when it gets cooking.

Especially when you consider the minimal but effective percussion. It's over a decade now since Ali Farka Toure's young sidekick demonstrated to Londoners that if it's sheer percussive impact you want, the best thing to do is take all your drum kits, rhythm boxes and programmers, sling them in a skip and head for the greengrocers: the absolute nec plus ultra of rhythm is a calabash. Traore's group had two, deployed on cloth-covered plinths like magicians' stands, emitting the dull bass thuds and dry clacks that are the language of a calabash, and abetted by the hissing slap of the cowrie-netted shekere and the metallic slicing of the caregna, basically a rubbed iron stick.

Traore was helped by the setting. Dark, intimate and just the right size. The last time I heard music like this in a pizzeria, it was the great Keletuigui Diabate in Les Pyramides, Bamako, under a velvet sub-Saharan sky, with incense in the air. Pizza Express lagged a touch in atmosphere, but the service was quicker. But I do think the sign on the table - "personally autographed CDs available from your waiter" - was taking self-publishing a bit far: our waiter was charming, but I'd never even heard his CD. Traore's record, Mouneissa, on the other hand, will see more of the turntable after this beguiling London debut.

Philip Sweeney

Rokia Traore performs at Pizza Express, Dean Street, London W1 tonight (0171-439 8722)