On Beautiful Africa, Malian songwriter and guitar slinger Rokia Traoré unleashes the fiery rocker she's been nurturing since her teens. On four previous offerings she established herself as a wildly inventive and diverse songwriter, most notably on 2008's Tchamantché. She recorded this set with producer John Parish in the U.K. He keeps her guitar and the n'goni right up front in his mix, just underneath her distinctive, supple voice. Her employment of a female backing chorus acts as both a call-and-response vehicle and as rhythmic and harmonic counterpart. Drummer Sebastian Rochford add weight, punch, and dimension as well. These nine songs are sung in French, Bambara, and occasionally English -- sometimes in the same tune. The music walks the line between the celebratory, the tender, the angry, and the sorrowful. Despite its rock leanings, Malian folk traditions are ever present in its DNA -- check "Kouma," where the vocals and droning desert blues accompanied by sparse percussion create the theme. Halfway through, Traoré's guitar screams through, distorted, frantic, and in the red. "Sikey"'s layered rock guitars, bassline, and drums create a staggered, syncopated groove, while Traoré and her singers' voices provide an alternate rhythm and dialogue. The taut breaks by Rochford and the haunting n'goni add ballast to her forceful, stinging six-string. Halfway through, a bridge offers a different melody, almost a different tune; it shifts the tempo and harmonic focus before returning to the main theme. The title track is damn funky. Traoré uses a wah-wah pedal and plays straight at Rochford's snare and hi-hat. He lays out numerous breaks -- yet remains firmly in the pocket. When she sings "Intense as ever," there's a snarl in her words as she addresses the chaotic, troubling situation in her once peaceful homeland. "Ka Moun Kè," which follows, is a soulful African pop tune; it's grainy and infectious with killer guitar reverb and a hypnotic rhythm track. Parish keeps things raw and lively; the appearance of these tunes being played by a live band is ever present. For those who long for tradition, the ballads such as "N'Téri" and "Sarama" offer melodies whose roots are centuries old. "Samara" is among the most searing ballads in Traoré's songbook. While Beautiful Africa is her most "commercial" recording -- as in, friendly to Western audiences -- it nonetheless follows directly the explorations her music has articulated from the beginning. It feels like a natural step, consequently expanding the margins of Malian roots music and rock and pop simultaneously.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek