Rokia Traore | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Rokia Traore 

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ROKIA TRAORE

Malian singer Rokia Traore, who's just 26, is already a savvy international citizen: she grew up in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and thanks to her diplomat father she's spent significant time in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and France. The label she records for is based in France, and her reputation was launched by performances there. But her worldliness surfaces in her music with an unusual subtlety. Her songs are rooted in the same hypnotic, circular riffs that distinguish the music of fellow Malians--from Ali Farka Toure, an early supporter of her work, to Oumou Sangare--and remain uncluttered by funky drums, ethereal synthesizer washes, or screaming electric guitars. On her second and latest album, Wanita (Indigo), she eschews the mighty Wassoulou wail popular with female singers like Sangare (with whom she shares a firm feminist sensibility) and Nahawa Doumbia in favor of a nuanced, restrained style that wouldn't sound out of place on an American pop-folk record, and instead of garrulous call-and-response backing vocals she favors gorgeous harmonies shaded with gentle melodic variations. From song to song she brilliantly varies texture, braiding shifting combinations of acoustic guitar, balafon (an African xylophone), n'goni (an African lute), and kora (played here beautifully by the great Toumani Diabate) with spare percussion and, on a few songs, tricky but unobtrusive bass lines. She's a master of dynamics, expanding certain passages with carefully framed space while building up others into a lush density. This is her Chicago debut. Tuesday, 8 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

--PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philippe Dupuich.

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