Rokia Traoré brings the sounds of Africa to the Barbican
If Mali’s Rokia Traoré weren’t so obviously selfless and likeable, one might think that she is trying to take over the Barbican for good. This week alone sees her play three shows in the cultural complex, all with different themes (Damou, Donguili and Donke, meaning “Dream”, “Sing” and “Dance” respectively) and chock full of new, specially-commissioned material followed by a starring role in the venue’s production of Toni Morrison’s Desdemonaas an encore.
The woman’s talents clearly have no end and the Friday night Donguili, show (22nd June 2012) was a chance to explore the rich tapestry of African art that she embodies alongside members of her Bridge Foundation for the promotion of musical awareness.
Traoré’s voice was wisely pushed to the forefront of the mix, soaring above her angelic backing singers with whom she occasionally trades places. When she addressed the crowd – introducing the songs in halting English and touching on the troubles in northern Mali that prevented several of her students from participating in the concert as planned – her voice was clipped and hoarse, but became imbued with tremendous feeling once the music kicked in, powerful without being overbearing. The acoustics of the Barbican Hall suited the arrangements perfectly; most of the material was written and rehearsed with it in mind.
Her band provided more than capable backing, with Mamadyba Camara in particular shining on the kora. The dynamics were consistently subtle, from the plaintive opener Kaniba through to the cover of Bob Marley’s Zimbabwe, all the more devastating for its restraint and pulsing rhythm. Former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones made the most unexpected of celebrity cameos halfway through the set, joining Traoré on electric mandolin for a stripped-down take on Bouewa Soumou, but even he blended into the overall wall of sound as the set progressed.
Often the ensemble was content to pick out a chord progression over a complex time signature (as on the blissfully serene Nimandon) and let the intricacies of each instrument naturally come to the fore over the course of each new jam.
Fans expecting a repeat of Traoré’s explosive performance on Later with Jools Holland earlier this month may have been left feeling slightly frustrated by the slow and steady pacing of the set, but the fireworks were evidently going to have to wait for the “Dance” show, to be held tonight Saturday 23rd June at the Village Underground in Shoreditch.
The gig was eventually wrapped up with a brisk, joyful rendition of the staple Djaba, which had the entire room clapping and cheering in unison – the ultimate vindication of Rokia Traoré’s strange and beautiful musical world.
Photos: Sherinne Abdou