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If Mali is shaping itself up to become Africa’s musical powerhouse – and it very much looks that way – then take note of Rokia Traoré, the young singer-songwriter whose music is generating enough energy to power a national grid. Bowmboï is her third album, and, featuring such guest stars as singer Ousane Sacko and the Kronos String Quartet, it’s already attracting worldwide attention.

And it’s well deserved. Favouring simple, open instrumentation – the n’goni lute and balofon percussion create a strong but fluid structure – there’s ample space for Traoré to operate in. Singing in her native Bambara language (English and French translations are provided), the immediate effect is of an atmospheric lightness, characteristic of southern Malian music. ‘M’bifo’ is a well-chosen opener, suitably slow in a pace that allows the contemplative emotions to be expressed. And although Traoré can deliver wonderfully on the buzzier numbers, it’s to this thoughtful tempo that she always returns, and nowhere better than on the album’s title track where the Kronos have a discreet presence. They bring a sound reminiscent of their recordings of South African composer Kevin Volans. Traoré is well-travelled and the framing of the music owes a slight debt to the phrasing of French chanson – but this immensely stylish album is nonetheless quite its own thing.

New Internationalist issue 364 magazine cover This article is from the February 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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