By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Rokia Traoré has made a cosmopolitan record that challenges but does not dishonor her West African heritage. Its passionate beauty, delicate textures, and innate interweaving of personal and political sentiment elevates Traoré alongside Baaba Maal, Youssou N'Dour, and Ali Farka Touré at the vanguard of progressive West African folk singer-songwriters.
The daughter of a diplomat from Mali, Traoré has lived in Saudi Arabia, France, and Algeria as well as her native country. After learning the ropes on her first disc and mostly hewing to Malian musical tradition on her second, she expresses her complex cultural identity with nuanced, self-assured aplomb on Bowmboï. Her lyrics are written and sung in her native Bamanan language, and most of the 10 songs rely on traditional African strings--especially the lute-like n'goni and Traoré's guitar--and percussion. But the polyrhythms are gracefully restrained--more gentle eddies than white-capped currents--and the strings are joined and sifted to promote texture over momentum. Significantly, the most disjunctive song on the disc is not one of the two anchored by the American string ensemble Kronos Quartet, but rather the track featuring Ousmane Sacko, who sings in the harsher, more beseeching tone of an African griot, then influences Traoré to follow suit.
The spirited but soft and sophisticated musical arrangements complement the dignity of Traoré's lyrics, which are often deftly shaded declarations of independence, wary of established orders imposed by ego, bureaucracy, or tradition. "Sara" inveighs against the kind of fame and political power that is isolated from the people. "Kôté Don" celebrates young girls as dynamic cultural change agents, as Traoré declares, "I respect my ancestors/But tradition is not infallible/It is not absolute/Time passes, we all change.... This is for you young people/Let's dance the kôté." And even on the most affecting love song, what Traoré cherishes most is the mutual tolerance she and her paramour have maintained without force, violence, or arrogance--a message reinforced by the delicate, lullabylike simplicity of the music.
Two other songs merit comment. "Déli," a meditation on the joys and restraints of friendship, contains a gorgeous and distinctive arrangement for bolon, guitar cithar, and n'goni, a multi-hued tapestry of strings as busy yet pastoral as a field of flowers being pollinated by flitting bees. And the closing title track, where the Kronos strings weep sad harmonies, is a lament of utter anguish unlike anything else on the disc. It belongs in the emotional palette of any conscientious African who is aware of the calamitous events on the continent--even one as proud as Rokia Traoré.