Voices of power and purity lilting out of Africa

by Paul Fisher

I seem to see certain of my favorite African musicians whenever I take a trip away from Japan. I have now seen Senegal’s Cheikh Lo in several European cities and in Co^te d’Ivoire, and am about to see him again at a festival in South Africa.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to share my Cheikh Lo enthusiasms here much, since fate hasn’t yet brought him to Japan. However, another musician, whom I have heard and had my heart melted by in Africa, Canada and France, is now headed for these shores. Mali’s Rokia Traore will be here as part of the 10th annual Festival Halou, on the same bill as the equally mesmerizing Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde.

Rokia Traore

In the West, most of Mali’s best-known musicians, such as Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure, are men, but in Mali it’s mostly women who are the superstars, from the wailing praise songs of Mali’s most revered female griots Kandia Kouyate and Ami Koite to the electrifying power of its Wassalou performers such as Oumou Sangare.

Traore, however, has an intimate, lilting, pure voice, with a soft beguiling lisp. When required she can belt it out with the best of the griots, but mostly she sings with a smoky, smooth and breathy character. Her music reveals strong echoes of the blues, with slight hints of jazz, rock and soul. Back home in Bamako, she is sometimes called Mali’s answer to Tracy Chapman: not an inaccurate description as she plays guitar, writes her own songs and is not afraid to tackle important social issues. She has become something of a role model for Malian women.

Now in her mid-20s, Traore was born into a noble family of warriors from the Bamana ethnic group in the region of Segou, north of Bamako. Unlike the Mandinka culture, upper castes are not forbidden from singing in public and she grew up within an unusual musical environment. Her father is a diplomat and as a child she lived in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France and Belgium as well as Mali. She listened to all the greatest female singers of Mali, but also jazz, rock and blues.

“Growing up in this multicultural environment I was inevitably and unconsciously influenced by everything that I heard,” she says. “So in my music there is not only traditional Malian music. You will also hear some notes, some melodies, that will sound familiar to Western ears.”

Perhaps her greatest accomplishment has been to blend a new mix of traditional instrumentation into her own thoroughly modern compositions, to create a highly distinctive sound. She pairs the balafon (a local xylophone) with the ngoni, a lute-type instrument sometimes called the original banjo. These are backed by the minimal percussion of a calabash, a shekere shaker and the metallic ringing of a cagera, an iron stick.

“Mali is so rich in music that people know they can go on forever just using what’s there,” she says. “I wanted to make my mark.”

She had quite a clear idea of the sound she wanted. Her two albums so far, “Mouneissa” and “Wanita,” sound more like the fruition of an idea than an experimental young artist’s work in progress. Initially, it was finding musicians to realize the music in her head that proved to be the hardest part.

“It has been difficult to get them into this unique sound that I want to create, because they all arrive from their particular region and ethnic tradition and their ‘proper’ way of playing their instrument. Finally, I feel they are reaching an understanding of this global idea that I have of the music and where I want it to go.”

To make herself clear, she sacked her entire group halfway through recording her first album, which explains why there are two sets of musicians on the album.

Traore is tipped as Mali’s next major artist, both at home and abroad. All the more impressive at her young age and coming from a country so richly overflowing with musical talent.

Cesaria Evora

Cesaria Evora had to wait until she was in her 50s before tasting success as a singer. She began performing in her late teens in the few bars in her native Mindelo, the main town of Sa~o Vicente, the cultural center of the Cape Verde islands. Evora sings a bluesy style of song called morna. The island’s history as a supply station on the trans-Atlantic route is reflected in the sound of morna and the more upbeat coladera: halfway between Portugal and Brazil. The music is often compared to and shares common roots with both Portuguese fado and Brazilian samba.

Largely ignored by former occupier Portugal after their country became independent in 1975, thousands of Cape Verdeans perished in famines. The result was mass migration. Of an estimated million Cape Verdeans today, only a third live on the islands. Cesaria Evora’s music evokes what the Cape Verdeans call sodade (in Portugal and Brazil saudade), meaning yearning or homesickness. A people who want to stay on their island home but must leave to survive.

It wasn’t until she was in her mid-40s that Evora left for Lisbon. There she met a young French producer of Cape Verdean descent, Jose da Silva, who offered to record her album in Paris for his Lusafrica label. Her first two albums were hits with the French and Portuguese Cape Verde communities, but little beyond.

With the release of her third album, “Mar Azul,” and to a greater extent the following “Miss Perfumado,” on which the songs were stripped of all electric elements, a wider audience took notice.

The totally acoustic songs, gutsy and heartrending with her extraordinary voice at the fore, struck a chord. Her voice’s power to convey deep emotion drew comparisons to Billie Holiday, fado legend Amalia Rodriguez and Bessie Smith. She was dubbed “the barefoot diva,” her mark of solidarity with those she left behind in Cape Verde.

She has since gone on to even greater success: gold records in France, a Grammy nomination and a worldwide deal with BMG. Her latest album, “Cafe Atlantico,” was partly recorded in Havana with Cuban musicians and Brazilian, French and Cuban arrangers. Nevertheless, some of the songs are still the same as Evora sang as a teenager in Mindelo.

A chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, thrice-married grandmother, Evora remains relatively unaffected by her success. She says she hasn’t resisted it; she only wishes it had come sooner.