Rokia Traoré may be part of the rich melting pot that represents Malian music, but she has always staked a claim as one of the country’s (and by extension Africa’s) most independent artists. As a member of the Malian elite (her father was a diplomat) Traoré would have been actively discouraged from becoming a musician, so she has battled against strict tradition throughout her career.
The fact that Tchamantché features an English-language version of the Gershwins’ The Man I Love should not be overlooked here. In 2005, Traoré toured alongside several western jazz artists in a tribute to Billie Holiday, the artist who first made the song famous. From West Africa to New York, the message is that music knows no boundaries.
Traoré has been pushing those boundaries throughout her career, and Tchamantché is another exquisite testament to her musical imagination and clear-eyed purpose. At the forefront is the closely miked sound of her electric Gretsch guitar, which vies with her clear vocals as the main point of focus.
The elegant Dounia opens the album on a mysterious note, with Phil Brown’s razor sharp production helping create an all-enveloping atmosphere. The intimacy of Traoré’s vocals on the first half of the song gradually give way to an urgent burst that perfectly syncs with the positive message of the lyrics and the swelling tide of the music, which weaves electric and acoustic guitars, percussion and traditional instruments including the n’gouni and kora into an intoxicating mix.
The ominous Dianfa shifts perspective to the problems of modern Africa, the minor-key tunings of the music lending the track a brooding feel in keeping with its subject matter.
Traoré and her band then slip easily into the ebullient Zen, a rhythmic praise to doing nothing that jumpstarts the album into life. It is followed by the slinky groove of Aimer, which boasts a superb vocal performance from Traoré, her little starts and trills between the melodies indicative of her affinity with jazz. It is unfortunate that the European version of the album loses Yorodjan, a cheerful hymn to African street parties, from the track listing.
There are no weak tracks on Tchamantché but Kounandi and Koronoko are startling highlights. The blend of musical styles weaves between traditional Malian folk forms, the tonalities of western jazz and the rhythmic drive of funk, layered to such an effect that the listener is left floundering at the breathtaking audacity of it all.
The shimmering Tounka directs a rare burst of anger at African émigrés, highlighting the fact that for all her cosmopolitan musical tendencies Traoré has always been a proud African at heart.
Sung mainly in her native Bambara, with the odd detour into French, the most inventive track on the album just happens to be her English-language version of The Man I Love. A slow bluesy opening featuring Traoré’s heavily accented vocals gradually speeds up into a fiery display of African scat singing, leaving the listener breathless by the end.
A Ou Ni Sou ends the album on an intimate note, with Traoré’s hushed vocals literally dripping out of the speakers. It’s a perfect way to end one of the finest albums of the year.