“I am the artist,” asserted Rokia Traoré, a Malian guitarist and singer-songwriter, as she thanked her audience at Open, Norwich, on Tuesday night. Her assertion was absolutely true and utterly justified. Traoré has long been one of the biggest names in Malian music, famous for her defying of the ‘world music’ category and blurring of blues and jazz with the music of her homeland. Recently she toured with Africa Express, and has released her latest album, Beautiful Africa, in which she expresses her love for and pride in Africa. Her appearance at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2013 has been greatly anticipated.
Open at first seemed an unlikely space for an exotic rock gig, its high ceiling and arches evoking a polite, classical ambience. However, the space came alive once Traoré and her band took to the stage. Right down to the sound quality and choice of lighting, the gig’s entirety was considered, powerful. The muted, moulded plaster was soon shaking with a mix of twanging guitars, African rhythms, and deeply-felt dance.
The show began with Traoré ascending the stage gravely, picking up her guitar, and striking up the mournful blues of ‘Dounia’, a haunting song from the 2008 album Tchamantché. ‘Dounia’ set the tone for much of the first half of the gig: austere, passionate, bluesy, in which the band’s outstanding musicianship blended seamlessly with the venue’s sensitive lighting and production. Traoré’s vocal was flawless, sometimes soft, sometimes soaring.
The powerful melancholy of the opening soon morphed into an upbeat blend of old school rock’n’roll and jazz, with Traoré letting go and dancing between the tenderly crooned verses and belting chorus of ‘Zen’ (‘J’ai eu le courage, je n’ai rien fait… Oh que je suis zen!’). ‘Beautiful Africa’, the title song from the new album, mixed a cheery 50′s style with wah-wah effects, and what perhaps can best be described as a kind of hysterical vocal – Traoré’s affirmations of love for the continent somewhere between laughter and celebration and a terrible, rueful sadness. The grand finale featured more dancing, and wonderful verses showcasing both her vocal dexterity and the beauty of the Bambara language. Her skill as a storyteller was wonderful, her graceful use of gesture and glorious smile evoking, with quiet humour, tales that transcended the language barrier. The show finished on a decidedly jazzy note, with a rendition of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ sung so softly and breathy with emotion.
Traoré’s appearance at NNF13 was that of a true artist, and a true privilege to witness.