Rokia Traoré, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

For her latest album, Beautiful Africa, Rokia Traoré turned to the production skills of John Parish, best known for bringing coruscating electric guitar to PJ Harvey’s signature West Country Gothic. The resulting album was still recognisably Malian, largely thanks to an accompaniment of ngoni, the rudimentary desert lute, so forceful as to constitute a second lead voice.

On stage, Traoré played almost all of the new album, hardening its sound, and extended the makeover backwards into her previous catalogue. “Dounia”, the opener, still swaggered in on its twanging desert guitar riff, played by Traoré on an antique Gretsch, but its Touareg lope was now an implacable shimmer. Washes of cymbal like shifting sands made it elusive and static as well as monumental, until it ended with a pianissimo receding run of ngoni and two lead guitars and bass.

On “Yandé” the rhythm kept shifting, from hard rock to abrasive funk to passages of quiet in which Traoré’s guitar duelled with the ngoni while the bassist marched on the spot like Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth. Lights like sun through prison bars on “Lalla” highlighted the band, all clad in severe black, apart from two backing singers in geometric print dresses, Traoré rising to a ululating howl on the coda.

“Ka Moun Ké” was a tender love song in its sentiments, but gritty in its interplay of instruments; a light swinging drumbeat provided the setting for ngoni and guitar to trade blurred scratching riffs. On “Mélancolie” the complex algorithms of the math-rock rhythms were closer to King Crimson than Talking Heads. “Mélancolie”, cajoled Traoré, “danse avec moi…”, running off into a cappella scat punctuated only with bass.

It is hard to imagine any of Traoré’s compatriots singing a song called, and about, “Zen” – the Malian form of calm is more stoical than Buddhist – but in reworked form this was a highlight, starting with ngoni and guitar in lockstep and then opening up like a lotus blossom as the instruments headed off on different directions and Traoré sang, almost conversationally, “Je ne vais rien faire” before dancing in an un-Zen-like frenzy as the guitar strained the wah-wah pedal to its limit.

A couple of preachier songs followed: the aggressive “Sikey” scolding those who criticise her for singing (as an educated, elite Malian), and then “Beautiful Africa”, which started by bemoaning the state of Ivory Coast, Guinea and Congo, then stiffened her own country’s resolve against suffering the same fate, and ended with her singing “I love you Beautiful Africa” with a growl on the edge of her voice while guitar and drums and ngoni shifted into psychedelic overdrive.

She ended with “Tuit Tuit”, a deceptively cheery song about the bird life of Bamako, backing singers trilling as she sang light and staccato, then singing parodically smoothly and slowly as she cajoled the audience to their feet for a much-delayed dance; they stirred slowly, as if not quite believing they were finally being given permission. Traoré’s rock dynamics are convincing, but she has not yet achieved the true rocker’s insouciance.

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