It has been four years since the superb Malian singer and guitarist Rokia Traoré last released an album (2008’s mesmerising Tchamantche) but, right from the outset in our discussion, it transpires that she has not been relaxing. Currently in France rehearsing in advance of a series of shows in London this week, she is taking some time to draw together the many strands of her career so far, whilst at the same time looking forward to an even brighter future. All this is set against the background of considerable trouble and confusion in her home nation, much of it completely unreported here in the UK.
The shows are being grouped together under the titles of Sing, Dance and Dream. Dream, at Wiltons Music Hall, will be a special, intimate performance of traditional Malian music and storytelling, whilst Dance will see her perform material from her forthcoming album, for which she has been working in a wonderfully unlikely collaboration with John Parish. For the Sing performance, one that’s particularly close to her heart, she will be collaborating with a range of European and emerging African artists, in part supported by her Foundation Passarelle. The Foundation aims to encourage Malians to develop professional careers in music.
The political situation in Mali, where a military coup d’etat in the capital Bamako precipitated a Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country, is obviously of major concern, and perhaps adds greater urgency to the wider outreach part of her work. “Socially, its a very unstable country,” she explains, “with very poor people but with a few people who are very rich, some of whom are taking money from public finances.” As with other cases of strife within African countries, the upheaval has coincided with very difficult conditions. “It hasn’t rained and this has created many problems because daily life depends on it.”
It is disconcerting that such major events have not been widely reported here, and are even less well understood. Perhaps it is simply that so much radical political change and violence has been going on elsewhere in the world? “It is very difficult to explain to an outsider,” she admits. “Even in Mali, nobody really knows whats happening. After 20 years of democracy, the population dont trust politicians. For them, the military now seem to be the solution. Theres now a situation where people neither know about the traditional way of thinking or the European approach.” The situation seems to be such that people are unable to think too far beyond the here and now. “We need leaders who can push people to think about something beyond what they are going to eat tomorrow. The perspective is limited to the day after. For a country, this is just not possible.” There is a transparent tone of sadness in Traoré’s voice as she describes the situation. “Theres a population now in Mali that is lost. Their solution is military but that is likely to be no different than the politicians. The solutions depend on Malians but we have been shocked. No one knew it would be so bad, so fast. Everything happened in just two weeks.”
Although Traoré is keen to emphasise that her work with Foundation Passarelle began before any clear signs of trouble appeared in Mali, perhaps it now has a major role to play if the solutions lie with Malians themselves? “We started before the problems but I just knew that culture is a key to all these problems in Africa. Culture can make Africans more self confident and trusting in their own ability. It is about training musicians and also about the education of the audience – pushing them to think of music and culture as part of an economy.” Much of her work involves developing the skills and qualities needed to be a professional. “I had an opportunity to work with these young people, offering them opportunities and perspectives. Its an opportunity to practice and to be on stage. To be a professional, you have to work – you have to practice. Of course, its an opportunity to make money but that will then fund other projects. Youngsters know that this is not about money and power – its about courage and working hard. They see me working hard to make things happen and they try to follow. When we first started, they had little idea of the professional world of music – touring in Europe, that sort of thing – now they are gaining experience.”
Traoré is clearly determined and driven in this as much as in her own writing and performing. “Since the problems started, my will is just to keep working. That is the way to ensure that people talk about Mali in a different way and that we make some money for these youngsters who are struggling. Im sad, shocked and confused but I have to try and not think about it and just continue as long as I’m able. I hope this situation wont interfere with our projects in Europe. For now, we are able to keep working.” What does Traoré get in return for this level of dedication and commitment? “I’ts definitely not just a one way process,” she argues. “I learn a lot from their ability to be fresh and hopeful. Theres an energy that you can’t find in anyone other than people from a country in war.”
Whilst music in Mali is often associated with griot people and less with the nobility, Traoré’s background in the Bambara group meant that she embraced music from a young age. “I had three older siblings and they used to take care of me a lot,” she explains (Traoré’s father was a diplomat and the family traveled a lot). “When they wanted to have fun without me, they could just leave me alone with music. When I started to cry, they knew they had to come and change the record. Maybe that created someting in me.” In fact, music seems to have run quite deeply within the family. “My father used to be a saxophonist, before starting his career as a diplomat. It was a real pleasure for him to share music with a young child.”
“Music is a way to share with people wherever you are, because it has no frontiers.”– Rokia Traoré
As well as the constant presence of music, traveling has also been a major component of Traoré’s life – both as a child following the movements of her father, and as an adult touring around the world. Has this had an impact on her work? “When youre traveling all the time, you are in a sense alone,” she explains. “And you always lose something. Here, you are an African. In Africa, you are a European and there is something you miss in each country you are in. You cant always share all your dreams and experiences because you dont have a shared vision of the world. I often feel alone – and when Im like this, I need to write. Music is a way to share with people wherever you are, because it has no frontiers.”
Indeed, for all her background in traditional music and her current preoccupation with political and social strife in Mali, Traoré’s forthcoming album Beautiful Africa sees her branching out across frontiers and collaborating with a range of musicians. Producing the album (or, as Traoré explains, the Artistic Director of the project) is regular PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish. What brought them together? “I wanted to work with someone from a culture more settled than mine and I wanted to work in a different way. I’ve been in touch with John for about a year now, and we’ve been working together on the choice of musicians.” Are the musicians playing at the London show (including much in demand drummer Seb Rochford) also working on the album? “No, it’s not the same musicians. On the album, we have a ngoni player and two students I work with in the foundation. I’ve taught them to sing and they are on backing vocals. The three other musicians are Europeans.”
Traoré goes on to explain that she sees all her albums as part of broader projects. “The first albums focused on the use of West African acoustic instruments. The previous album I wanted to operate more with blues. This next album will be different – because of the musicians and the approach – but will be in the same spirit and mood. But I just can’t do the same thing twice!” Clearly, Traoré embraces change and challenging herself in new musical contexts. “I love sharing projects with other musicians – it enriches you. Every project is a new experience and an opportunity to learn new things.”
One area where Traoré has definitely been learning is in the sphere of literature and theatre. This has come about through her involvement in Desdemona, a theatre project written by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison and directed by Peter Sellars. It presented Traoré with an entirely different world. “They wanted something specific and I had to work as directed by them. I had to understand the project and follow their wishes. Taking consideration of other peoples aims is something very different for me – especially when those people are Toni Morrison and Peter Sellars! I had to learn a lot about English to understand the project fully. It was a great experience.” Desdemona will be performed in London in July, keeping Traoré very much in the arts limelight this summer.
What Traoré seems to value most about her professional life is unpredictability and new experience. “Nothing is ever finished, you can’t know everything,” she says. “When I was young I had this idea of being a star and the stopping at the very top – at the height of fame. But through touring and making albums, your mind changes. The more you get experience, the more you understand that you don’t have time to know everything. A lifetime won’t be enough for me to be as great a musician as I would like to be. My aim now is less to be a star and more to just keep growing.” This seems to inform every aspect of her work – from recording projects to keeping performances fresh and exciting. “You get on stage to challenge yourself. You are happy to show the audience the worst of you because what you are showing is not always under control because a live show is very much alive – even if you are really well rehearsed. With experience, you begin to control things better, but I really love that feeling of just being a little bit out of control. When it happens in a good way, you just have fun.”
We talk a bit about instinct, which the untrained Traoré claims is the means by which she began her career (she developed her distinctive and nuanced vocal style without taking singing lessons) and then about intuition, the more informed state a musician might achieve after some training and experience. Traoré believes that “You can learn techniques and information, but you can’t learn instinct or intuition.” Traoré’s is an extraordinary career that continues to build on these two innate qualities, inspiring many and changing lives in the process.
Rokia Traoré’s Donguili – Donke – Damou (Sing – Dance – Dream) runs from 18-23 June 2012 as follows: Monday 18 June, Wiltons Music Hall: Damou (Dream); Friday 22 June, Barbican Hall: Donguili (Sing); Saturday 23 June, Village Underground: Donke (Dance). More here.