When music is banned in the north of your country, and those who persist in making it are threatened with having their fingers amputated, the stakes of being a musician have just been raised. But, as Rokia Traore knows, the stakes were always high in Mali, the epicentre of African music, and the well-spring of African-American blues. Add a military coup that has cast a sinister shadow over Bamako, the once happy-go-lucky capital (resulting in the closure of many music venues), and Traore has felt obliged to flee her own homeland.
It is the umpteenth move in a life initially made nomadic by having a diplomat father and then by becoming one of the world’s most captivating singers. This time the destination was Paris, to give her six-year-old son a safe base while she tours. “Everything happens so suddenly that I don’t feel secure knowing my son’s there [in Mali] when I’m travelling,” she says. “So I had to come back to France. He’s going to school here now, and can stay in a stable place when I’m travelling.”
Such upheaval is the very antithesis of Traore on stage. Reed-slender, striking and statuesque, she exudes elfin grace, serenity and effortless charisma. Her music is mellifluous, although her lyrics (in Bambara) are often potent expressions of protest and homespun philosophy. She has only released four albums in 15 years, preferring quality to quantity. Her first sold 40,00 copies in Europe without a soul having heard of her. The second was one of albums of the year in The New York Times, her third won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award, and her fourth won the prestigious Victoires de la Musique in France.
Speaking on a ragged telephone line from Paris she laments a situation in her homeland that was unthinkable only seven months ago. In her Malian-flavoured, French-accented English Traore says that she sees the al-Qaeda-related rebels’ radical implementation of sharia law in the north as a by-product rather than the main problem. She blames the greed and corruption in Bamako for sowing the seeds of Islamic rebellion. “People are wanting to have their share of this cake which is Mali,” she says. “Some of them are trying just to make the situation last as long as possible, because they found a way to be powerful during it.”
Despite the volatility she still visits Bamako once a month to hold rehearsals and oversee the Fondation Passerelle (Footbridge Foundation) she established and funded (with help from Denmark’s Roskilde Festival) to teach and promote the arts in Mali. The foundation is building a concert venue and recording studio, and has several album projects by young Malian players in hand. “Part of the idea was to work with other countries to create a kind of circuit,” she says, “between the stage we are building and other stages in west Africa, and promote our own culture, and try to contribute to this market inside Africa for music. But we have to go very slowly with everything to see what’s going to happen now, because this situation is absolutely confusing.”
Traore’s life has always been a restless one. As a child she would return to Mali for holidays after stints overseas in Belgium, France, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. In Bamako she was ostensibly just another barefoot child playing in the streets and roaming happily between houses. But, she suspected, in the eyes of her peers she was the daughter of “the people with a driver”; the girl who went to the international school and had never known poverty.
As a result she kept people at arm’s length. It was hard enough, anyway, to make friends when her family was always on the move.
“People used to tell me, ‘You look so sad,’” she says. “I’m not sad, but loneliness is just part of me. Friendship is something very difficult… so it’s preferable not trying it. I have maybe two, three very good friends I have had for 20 years. Except for them there are not so many people who really know me. I have this fear of disappointing people I can be close to. So I prefer having a kind of long-distance relationship.” She laughs.
Now 37, she began singing over 20 years ago. “When you are 16 and working with older people… you learn also how to deal with people very early,” she says. “It creates a kind of loneliness, because maybe you know too much about people, and can’t share all the things you know.”
Her home in Bamako was a refuge. “It was perfect,” she says. “I felt this was going to be my first home.. I’d been living there for three years before the beginning of all these problems, and I really felt at home there. I thought, ‘My God, tranquillity in a place!’ Now I have to rethink everything, and that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. I start to think having a home is not my destiny, maybe.”
When I last spoke to Traore in 2008 her preoccupation was simply to escape being lumbered with the wretched “world music” tag. All she wanted was to be heard, judged, loved or hated as a singer and songwriter. But she found herself relentlessly promoted as a “Malian” artist. To combat the problem she switched from the traditional instruments behind her acoustic guitar to more rock-band instrumentation, with Traore herself playing gentle electric guitar, as on her last album, Tchamantche.
Traore knew early on that she wanted to be a musician. When she was three her father, who played the saxophone and composed as well as teaching in his pre-diplomat days, introduced her to African music, jazz, classical and chanson Francaise. “I was around seven, eight when I knew that, if I could, I would be a musician,” she says. “But when I was a teenager I understood that it was very difficult, because I didn’t go to a conservatory and I was not a griot.”
Griots are the west-African musicians, storytellers and cultural trustees who assume this role by being members of a revered hereditary caste rather than just by choice.
“So I thought it wasn’t possible. But I used to write texts which later became my first lyrics, and these texts were a kind of way to not feel too much alone. Writing became very important for me, and I used to write a lot when I was a child.”
At 17 she joined a rap band, and people began telling her she had a good voice. A year later her father gave her a guitar which she taught herself to play. Her mother encouraged her to sing her own songs. “I wasn’t really trying to make a career,” she says. “I felt that being an artist was a kind of dream. When you’re a teenager you think that this can happen to anybody except you.”
She laughs that musical laugh again, and tells me that she had thought of studying to become journalist. “I wasn’t sure I had a nice voice or any talent, but I was sure about one thing: I had ideas to try in music. And that’s what I’m still doing: just trying things I imagine.”
Earlier in her career others tried to clamp down on this imagination, wanting her to just fill a niche in the world-music marketplace. “I didn’t know everything,” she says, “but I had clear ideas of what I wanted to try. So I didn’t want someone to tell me something else to do. It’s like something that is blocking all your imagination. Also the fact of putting you in a box: you are making world music. You are not allowed to make anything else. These kinds of things are really unpleasant to someone like me, because I’m not making music to become a star. I’m making music to experience things, and of course I take it very seriously, because I’m conscious that, without the audience, nothing would be possible.
“But, at the same time, your profession must be a pleasure,” she continues. “It must something you do with all your conviction, and it must be something you do with your own imagination. It’s very important to try anything you can imagine and make special, with your voice or your body or acting, or anything. Music and art are just a simple way of sharing things, but using your imagination.”
Her world-wide success proves that countless others are on the same wave-length. “For me it still is a dream,” she says, “and that’s one of the reasons my work is almost not like work. I think I’m really lucky to be able to make a living from what I wanted to do exactly – or not wanted, but what I dreamt of doing!” And there’s the laugh again.