Rokia Traoré’s London hat trick
Three different shows at the Barbican
In the run-up to the Olympic games in the British capital, Malian singer Rokia Traoré is set to feature at the Barbican Centre for three nights performing creations specially devised for the event. RFI Musique met up with the singer.
RFI Musique: How did you get the idea for this performance in three parts?
Rokia Traoré: The Barbican’s creative director, who’s organising a festival around the Olympics, suggested that I might do three different shows instead of repeating the same performance three nights in a row. I was dubious to start with, I didn’t think I was capable, but I realised that the infrastructure was there for such an ambitious project in terms of the work it represents. One of the shows involves young people from the foundation I created in Mali. Another is more intimate, with just three of us on stage, and based on griot storytelling. The third presents my forthcoming album.
Each of the evenings has a title: Dream, Sing, Dance. Do they correspond to your different artistic facets?
In Bambara, these three concepts all start with a “D”: "Damou", "Donguili", "Donke". Ultimately, they are also different aspects of my personality. For two years, I’ve been learning about the griot tradition. Up until then, I used to listen to them like every Malian does, but professionally I knew nothing about their technique and texts. They are classics, ancient melodies, and reworked ancient compositions, played in different ways. It took me time to find a griot who was ready to teach me about the tradition. Finally, I came across Bako Dagnon who is like absolutely no one else. When I told the late Ali Farka Touré I was interested in finding out more about griots, he suggested I should contact her, and he was right. She has the same idea of the size of things as he did. With those two, there’s a genuine sense of transmission, unlike most musicians wrapped up in their petty jealousies.
What inspired you to move towards this aspect of Malian culture?
It was what I wanted to do at the end of my studies, so that I could write books, when I thought I wouldn’t be able to become a professional musician. Afterwards, when I had the chance, paradoxically it was easier for me to learn the western singing technique. What with my education, my background and my parents’, I was basically closer to western culture than I was to traditional Malian culture.
Doest the second show fit in with your ongoing project Roots, which you’ve been presenting since 2011?
Absolutely. The idea was to involve all the young people I work with in the Foundation. In Roots, they relay each other during the tour, for financial reasons. Some of those I worked with in the spring already had their visas, but before we could even turn up to the interview for the others, the political events that have been affecting Mali for some time now led to the consulates closing down. It’s frustrating for all these young people. We had to abandon the initial project and quickly go back to Roots, although we transformed it quite a bit.
What’s the repertoire?
It’s my own classics. Marley, Jacques Brel, Leo Ferré, etc. We go step by step because there are some songs that I know and they don’t. You have to start by letting them get to know the songs and want to perform them! I chose almost half of the numbers but they added some of their own.
How did you work on the third show, which is a taster of your next album?
It’s a brand new group. Only one thing remained, and that’s the ngoni player I’ve been working with for twelve years. The backing singers are two of the young people I work with in the Foundation. The drummer, guitarist and bass player are from different European countries. We started rehearsing a couple of weeks ago, and we’ll be presenting the numbers before we record them. It’s a good way of developing our instinct and intuition on the songs and making sure the recording isn’t a series of calculations and editing. With Jon Parish (Ed’s note, British guitarist who made his name playing with PJ Harvey), who will be playing with us in London, we’re planning to do some live recordings. I wanted to work with a musician with more of a professional rock culture than me. It’s good to learn from someone who has more experience, instead of trying to do it all myself!
Barbican Centre's website