Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rokia Traoré

with Mamah Diabate, Naba Traore, Christophe Minck, Laurent Robin, and Eric Lohrer
April 18, 2010, MainStage
Reviewed by Mary S. Landon

Sunday night’s concert featuring Rokia and her band almost defies description. Or rather, it involves multiple adjectives.

With her African roots and cultured European upbringing, Rokia’s style has a refined edge that brings it quite far into the modern and pop modes, while respecting her heritage as a griot, a storyteller.

Rokia is a slight African woman with short-cropped hair and a lovely, grainy voice. The audience is able to hear the nuances in her voice because she takes brief opportunities to sing some lines a capella. At times her voice is piercingly clear, at times more muted and soft. Rokia’s first few songs were quiet, mellow ballads featuring her expressive voice and her electric guitar and not much else. Gradually, through the evening, she and the band heated things up for a spirited two-hour show.

Initially, I was put off by the fog machine and the choreographed light show. I thought the special effects detracted from the essence of the music and Rokia’s message. But I did get used to these stage effects and began to see them as part of the mood and energy that Rokia wanted to convey.

Her songs can be described as a multicultural mélange, a seamless blending of pop, blues, rock, and Malian rhythms with a touch of a meditative quality in the slower songs. However she does it, it works. As she has said herself, “I think I am modern and traditional at the same time. I’m not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments.”

Rokia was joined onstage by two guitar players, a ngoni player, a drummer, and a back-up singer (who turned out to be a lovely dancer, as well, showcasing her flexibility toward the end of the show). Rokia was able to laugh, smile, sing, dance, and deliver her energy during some surprisingly long songs. All the while, she was, we assume, telling a story in her native language or in French.

Between the band members, the dancing lights, the rich colors, and the eerie fog, there was much to look at while taking in the sounds and beats of the ensemble. I realized how, when I don’t know the words being sung, I focus more on the environment I’m looking at.

Rokia Traoré and her band were greatly enjoyed by the audience, who clapped along in time with the long repetitive pieces. It was hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of the faster pieces, as they built to their crescendo. The later it got in the evening, the longer the songs became; some even took on the feel of a long jam by a rock group. Rokia eventually invited the audience to dance in the aisles, which was met with great enthusiasm by a large crowd.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

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