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Friday, April 16, 2010

Rokia Traore in Amherst

To these ears, Malian diva Rokia Traore’s April 14th concert at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center defied expectations. With her deft ensemble arrangements, strategic incorporation of Western harmonies and scales, and acoustic-electric hybrids, she has created her own unique sound of—dare I say?—Malian chamber music (albeit with Western touches). No surprise with that: during her wonder years, she traveled often to France, Belgium, and Algeria with her diplomat father, assimilating international musical and cultural influences.

Her cds—the two most recent ones licensed on Nonesuch from Nick Gold’s British-based World Circuit label—have excelled with a relatively quiet intensity: their virtues include consummate textural and dynamic balance, endlessly inventive polyrhythmic explorations, and striking vocals. A decade ago Rokia slipped into the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on a hot summer night with a predominantly acoustic band (including ngoni, balafon, talking drums, and two backup vocalists) that magically conveyed those assets.

So how was her April 14th visit different? Rokia showed up with an electric power band that knocked socks and other vestments off. Propelled by the preternatural driving bass of Christophe Minck, her amped-up band—which also included electric guitar, Western drum kit, ngoni, a female backup singer, and Rokia— remained faithful to the lion's share of  her long-standing musical objectives.

True,there was some loss of clarity in ensemble separation and definition, but the ends justified those costs. Rokia’s own vocal paintbrush—frequently morphing from coloristic washes to piquant rhythmic accents—was never in doubt. Mamah Diabate’s breathtaking compings on a plugged-in 4-string ngoni would have been the envy of Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy. And the collective propulsion and polyrythmic inventiveness among Malian and Western musicians kept most of us on the edge of our seats. With those musical forces and Rokia’s musical leadership, there was
never any doubt—loud was beautiful!

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