Before meeting Rokia Traoré, I had her pigeonholed as a very modern sort of artist, most comfortable traversing the globe just as she traverses, or elides, different genres.
The daughter of a Malian diplomat, she once told another interviewer that her favourite place growing up was the airport — “this middle point between two places”.
On internet publication Pitchfork she has been hailed “as one of the world’s great synthesisers, combining the rhythms and traditions of diverse cultures from Africa and Europe into a complex sound that only she could create”.
The last time I saw her perform was at the Africa Express shows across Britain last year. Later I spoke to her when she was announced as the first act for this year’s Glastonbury Festival. (She’ll also headline the Womad festival in the United Kingdom this year.) When we meet it’s in Brussels, at the studios of RTBF, the Belgian BBC. But during the course of the hour that we speak, it becomes apparent that I’ve got her wrong; rather than a global soul, she’s a more complicated character than that epithet might imply.
In fact, on the title track of her new album, Beautiful Africa, she describes herself as an “Afro-progressive”, but that term covers a lot of ground. The song addresses the political turmoil in Côte d’Ivoire, in the Congo and in Guinea, as well as in her native Mali.
It was the last song to be written for the record, finished in July last year, when Traoré was at her lowest ebb following a series of shows in London, and at a point when the crisis in her country was worsening.
“It came after weeks of stress and wondering about what was going to happen,” she says, talking to me in English (which is considerably better than my French and much more so than my Bambara).
“I was tired, I was crying so many times, with no ability to sleep. But I had this obligation to continue working. I had to find the energy to keep everything going. I wrote the song in two days, and we recorded it on the sixth day we made the album.
“I didn’t want to sing about my sadness; I wanted to keep positive and sing about how much I love this continent,” she says.
Beautiful Africa was recorded in Bristol, England, with John Parish, who has most famously worked with PJ Harvey.
The album is the result of Traoré wanting to find “someone from the rock ’n roll culture who could bring me a sound … an artistic producer who could understand my work without wanting to change it”.
Parish subsequently tells me: “Of course she has a fantastic voice, but I was also impressed by her … ‘professionalism’ would make her sound cold and calculating, which is not how she is. Rather than the immaculately executed performance, she’ll look to bring that spark of life to everything, but she is very serious about what she wants.”
The outcome isn’t a rock album or a fusion record, but the specific (and beautiful) result of Traoré pursuing her muse — and discovering more of her Malian musical identity.
She left the country with her six siblings at the age of two and a half, when her father was posted abroad. Through him (he used to be a sax player), she discovered jazz, the blues and French chanson as well as different styles of African music, and one of her brothers, 12 years older than her, introduced her to Dire Straits and Pink Floyd.
The family lived in the Middle East, in North Africa and in Belgium, but would consistently return home — “there has been no rupture between me and Malian culture” — and after studying sociology at university in Brussels, Traoré moved back to Bamako.
She was discouraged from becoming a singer, not so much because she wasn’t born into the class of griot storytellers who have for centuries been the guardians of Mali’s musical traditions, but because among her parents’ circle it seemed scandalous to forfeit the benefits of a Western education in this way. But the patronage of the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré inspired her.
“I told him I really liked all sorts of music, and he told me don’t try and play like other people. He, like me, was a self-learner. He said: ‘You’re on your own path now, so just carry on — it will be your way of playing.’ ”
Starting with her debut, Mouneïssa, released in 1998, Traoré has brought her own taste and sensibility to Malian music: exploring her own Bambara heritage and now, on Beautiful Africa, her fifth album, also delving into Mandinka music, having studied with the griot singer Bako Dagnon.
This followed her appearance in Desdemona, a new play by Toni Morrison, directed by Peter Sellars, that played across Europe and the United States in short runs that began two years ago. It reimagined Shakespeare’s Othello from the point of view of its heroine, and featured Traoré singing songs derived from the Epic of Soundiata, the foundation poem of the Mandinka people.
“I respect tradition, but my modernity and my experience permits me to make it a certain way and show something more contemporary concerning Mali,” she says.
Four years ago Traoré finished building her own house in Bamako. She, her French husband and their six-year-old son also have a place in Amiens in northern France, but she bases herself in Mali, when touring and the political situation allow.
Inevitably, we discuss the French intervention into the crisis in Mali, which she supported. “I don’t see it as any kind of new colonialism, no,” she says.
But she is adamant that the country’s future lies in Malians taking control of their own destiny and culture. “We need self-confidence in our ability to build Africa,” she says. “I trust in Mali and I trust in music.” — © Guardian News & Media 2013