The Malian singer continues to cut a singular trajectory through modern music. On the heels of a fine, Miles-esque outing with trumpeter Erik Truffaz comes a sixth solo album, like 2013’s Beautiful Africa cut with producer John Parish, though with fewer rock influences. The guitars and ngoni still murmur and jingle with the odd Dire Straits-ish riff (an early influence), but the mood is more reflective.
Just prior to her last release, 2013's fiery rock-oriented Beautiful Africa, Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré's home country suffered a military coup that launched the nation into a brutal civil war and political unrest that continues to smolder three years later. It's no wonder then that Traoré's sixth album, Né So, is a more subdued affair, rife with new tensions and deeply affecting meditations on identity and the meaning of home. Produced again by Britain's John Parish (PJ Harvey), the sonic scope of Né So is more intimate and tightly wound than its predecessor, filled with subtle grooves and some inventive guitar work from both Traoré and her two very capable six-string counterparts, Stefano Pilia and Rodriguez Vangama.
That Rokia Traoré has become one of the most respected West African musicians of her generation can be divined from the line up on sixth album, Né So. With PJ Harvey acolyte John Parish on production duties, there are guest performances by such luminaries as John Paul Jones, Devendra Banhart and acclaimed writer Toni Morrison. It’s testament to a career spent expanding the boundaries of Malian music while staying true to its essential spirit.
Rokia Traoré has changed direction, yet again. Her last album, Beautiful Africa, was her most commercial, rock-influenced set to date, memorable for its blend of energy, anger and fine, personal songs. Now she’s back, with the same producer, John Parish, the same instrumental lineup (guitars, including her own electric guitar, bass, drums and ngoni) but a very different approach.
Home, and the longing for it after being driven into exile by war, is at the heart of Né So, the sixth and latest album by the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. “In 2014”, she sings on the title track, “another five million people fled their homes/forced to seek refuge in town and countries far from home”. But Traoré isn’t commiserating with the plight of the displaced from a safe distance; she instead witnessed it in her homeland, as it descended into civil war.
“Né So” means “home” in Bambara, Mali’s primary lingua franca. The album, Rokia Traoré’s sixth in a career spanning almost two decades, hangs loosely around that same theme. The concept of home has long been fluid for the Malian singer/songwriter, who grew up traveling the world with her diplomat father and who today splits her time between Bamako, Brussels, and Marseille.
It’s a tricky road to walk as an African recording musician – you have to balance wide international appeal while still remaining true to your own artistic traditions. That latter notion doesn’t mean hewing closely to traditional forms (though it can mean that) – Africans do live in the 21st century, after all, and avail themselves of the same modern recording gear and instrumentation as anybody else. But it can be a difficult balancing act to maintain.