Malian singer, songwriter, and guitarist Rokia Traoré is no stranger to European audiences. Her three previous offerings and her numerous tours and high-level showcases -- at WOMAD and Africa Live, and as part of Youssou N'Dour & Friends in Geneva, to name a few -- have garnered her a large and devoted fan base. Her music is not so well known in the United States, but with the release of Tchamantché on Tama/Nonesuch, this should change. Traoré has always been a tradition breaker. She is from a family of nobles of the Bamana ethic heritage, a group with a strong griot tradition, though its nobility are discouraged from being musicians. Also, Malian women who are musicians usually accompany themselves on acoustic rather than electric instruments. Traoré, who has appeared on stages and recordings with her great influence, the late Ali Farka Touré, plays an electric Gretsch.
On Tchamantché, Traoré goes a step further: most Malian vocalists of the feminine gender tend to sing stridently, in over the top voices about elements of pride and heritage. She does neither. Her voice is intimate and almost understated, and her songs are filled with the plight of Africans who struggle for the most basic of human amenities: clean water, food, clothing, and shelter. Her politics are not rooted in rage, but in compassion. But even this isn't enough for Traoré. She has fashioned a new sound from the tenets of Malian folk forms with her unique blend of guitars (electric and acoustic), n'gouni, classical harp, and kora, all layered in staggered rhythms with snares, a full drum kit, and percussion instruments. This is beautifully evident on the album's fifth cut, "Kounandi," the taut weave of instruments above the rhythms creating an intoxicating tapestry of root sounds that somehow transcend their basic tonalities and become something new. This is followed with the gorgeous "Koronoko," where these instruments, along with a popping bassline and staggered web of harmony vocals, act as another layer of instruments and tonalities. But then, there isn't a weak moment on Tchamantché. Its lyrics (all translated into English for Amerikanskis) -- full of pain, celebration, spirituality, steely pointed notions of justice, and critique -- are only underscored by this heady, complex mix of stylistic forms and styles that has become a sound unique to Rokia Traoré. Highly recommended.