The West African state of Mali may have been in the news for some less than ideal reasons over the past couple of years, but for all its recent political woes, one thing that remains resolutely undimmed is the vigour and beauty of its music. Toumani Diabaté, Amadou & Mariam and Vieux Farka Touré are just some of the names that have built careers beyond their own shores, yet the jewel in the Malian crown is surely the mesmerising Rokia Traoré.
Since the late 1990s, this daughter of a wealthy diplomat, discouraged from singing as a child due to her noble background, has gradually developed her soulful interpretation of the Bambara music of her homeland into a bewitching fusion of blues, rock and traditional textures. This process reached full fruition with 2013’s impressively assured, John Parish-produced Beautiful Africa album, sung in French and English as well as her native tongue, and it is this record that formed the core of Wednesday’s Royal Festival Hall show.
Backed by a band including both Malian and western musicians, Traoré delivered a performance of two distinct halves. The first saw relatively straightforward renditions of tracks from Beautiful Africa, plus a handful of reworked versions of earlier songs, characterised by the complex interweaving of conventional guitar rhythms and Mamah Diabaté’s wonderfully dexterous n’goni playing. This instrument, a small, rustic kind of lute, creates the kind of honeyed, quintessentially African cascade of shimmering, sun dappled notes that no European equivalent can quite match. Highlights of her new material included the infectious riffing of Ka Moun Ké, while set opener Dounia, dating from 2008’s Tchamantché, remains a fabulously evocative, hypnotic piece of desert blues on a par with Tinawiren’s best work.
For all its excellence, the concert was in danger of politely meandering by, with little variation in pace and style, until Traoré correctly decided that the hitherto somewhat supine crowd needed livening up a little. What followed – lengthy, sprawling semi-improvised renditions of Kouma and Tuit Tuit – saw her (largely successfully) get the punters on their feet dancing along, although the predominantly white British middle class attempts to emulate the effortless grace of Traoré and her effervescent Malian backing singers (who took turns to strut their stuff at the front of the stage) met with mixed results. Above it all, Traoré switched at random between languages and vocal styles; from English spoken word to jazz scat and soaring griot atmospherics, yet serenely poised throughout.
The best was left for last though, when Traoré and her musicians returned for an astonishing encore of Billie Holiday’s Gloomy Sunday. For the first time in the evening, proceedings were totally stripped back to allow Traoré’s magical voice to come to the fore at last. A thing of spellbinding range, precision and expressive power, it reduced the audience, who had been enjoying a party atmosphere just moments before, to a state of hushed reverence, proving that the Malian is one of the planet’s great vocalists. Perhaps the only criticism of Traoré’s new rock direction, both live and on record, is that it no longer allows that voice enough opportunities to really spread its wings.
Rokia Traoré played: Dounia, Yandé, Lalla, Ka Moun Ké, Mélancolie, Zen, Sikey, Beautiful Africa, Kouma, Tuit Tuit Encore: Gloomy Sunday, N’Téri