Rokia Traoré’s show at London’s Roundhouse pulled off the impressive feat of being simultaneously both a first and a last. Traoré has opted to start her tour in support of her forthcoming sixth album Né So in London, and this show therefore marked the debut outing for her current live band. The concert also provided a stunning finale for the Roundhouse’s series of gigs presented ‘in the round’. As it transpires, this description is slightly misleading, the venue being set-up more as a semi-circle, with a large stage engulfing much of the arena floor space.
The ensuing effect is decidedly more intimate and comfortable than the usual Roundhouse experience, and it very much lends itself to the enjoyment of this enthusiastic but also close listening audience. The audience’s reactions were all the more impressive given the extent to which Traoré and her ensemble opted to avoid easy options. They perform plenty of material from her not-yet-released new album Né So and pace the set with artful care, beginning with nuanced and refined melodies and journeying towards more propulsive, uplifting grooves.
The stunning opener Maye is amorphous and elusive, with an elasticity and freedom in the accompanying playing delivered with delicate subtlety, still allowing Traoré’s voice the space it requires. The whole set feels as if it has a coherent internal narrative, touching on Traoré’s roots in Mali and characterised by her compelling mix of elegance and defiance. More than once, Traoré pointedly refers to her musical life as ‘a career’, and a sense emerges of an artist keen to take on any battle necessary to transform her passion in to something secure and viable. It is an approach to live performance that manages to incorporate both real and deep communication with an audience and a sense of confrontation.
For the most part, Traoré is now a less athletic performer than in previous years, preferring to focus on the beauty and feeling in her often extraordinary songs. The material from Né So is often physical – but in a more light and agile way. Kenia is a remarkable case in point, Traoré’s vocals dancing in a good natured duel with co-vocalist Bintou Soumbounou (credited as a backing vocalist, but making a contribution that often flirts thrillingly with the foreground of the music).
The music is elevated by a crisp, accurate rhythm section (Moise Outtara on drums and Matthieu Nguessan on bass) and by impressive but thoughtfully blended contributions from Mamah Diabate on n’goni and Stefano Pilla on electric guitar). Whilst the ‘western fusion’ aspects of Traoré’s recent work with PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish have perhaps been overstated, Pilla adds effects and shadings occasionally more redolent of western rock music. The set flourishes to full life with an invogorating, gripping take on Mélancolie from 2013’s Beautiful Africa album, now even more robust and powerful than in its recorded form, Traoré’s voice at its most acrobatic and dexterous here.
One of Britain’s great advocates for African music, Damon Albarn, guests on electric piano for a couple of songs in the main set. This music is quite some way removed from Gorillaz or Blur, and Albarn’s choices of harmony at the keyboard sometimes feel a little jarring. Whilst it might be musically somewhat awkward, his piano playing never quite blending with this band’s effortless sound world, Albarn’s enthusiasm for this music is obviously genuine, as is Traoré’s appreciation for his work. Albarn has proved himself to be a chameleonic force for good in contemporary music – too often unfairly dismissed for only a very small sub-section of his output.
As impressive and urgent as this current touring band undoubtedly is, one of the highlights of the set comes when the rhythm section leave the stage. Traoré delivers a majestic, affecting version of Kolokani, a song inspired by her parents’ home village in Mali. Whilst Traoré explains that she did not herself grow up there, the song has a palpable and elegiac sense of longing for home. Diabate’s n’goni playing is inspired here, subverting the instrument’s reputation as an electrifying force, in favour of something gentle and lyrical.
The main set ends with a superb, enhanced and gloriously protracted version of Zen from 2008’s Tchamantché, a thrillingly uplifting moment that finally gets the all seated audience on their feet. Traoré indulges in a little uninhibited dancing of her own, urging the audience to relax and join in. It’s not only a tremendous spectacle, but also a powerful example of this band’s relaxed intensity and feel.
Traoré has an occasional predisposition towards spoken word platitudes, and she follows Zen with a pre-prepared declaration, read in English from a paper prompt. The theme here is respect, and the message is admirable, if a little clunky. She also proceeds to thank not just the individual band members, but pretty much everyone involved in bringing her music to the UK. Thankfully, the band continue in their meticulous, righteous grooving, and keep the crowd dancing throughout. There is one encore – a reading of Strange Fruit, a noticeably unsettling note on which to end, and one that hints at the seriousness underlying this compelling, entertaining show.