The Sound of the City

Senior Dance

The world-music audience can be a little weird-for all its presumed inclusionary values, you sometimes pick up a members-only vibe. So it was refreshing to catch Mali's hottest new singing star at her free, open-air Lincoln Center concert last Sunday. The few traditional robes and sprinklings of aficionados were a minority. "Excuse me, who is this playing?" one woman in her late sixties asked. I wrote the name out on my pad: "Rokia Traoré." "But it wasn't on the program. . . . " The largest single demographic was white senior citizens, seated on folding chairs.

On tour to promote her second album, Wanita, this cosmopolitan daughter of diplomats-with her sober tunic, biker shorts, schoolgirl demeanor, competent guitar-playing, and notions of freedom-is certainly a marked departure from the regal griots of Malian tradition. But after all, reigning diva Oumou Sangare is a feminist, and Traoré's patron, Ali Farka Toure, plays electric blues. Traoré rearranges traditional elements, venturing unprecedented instrumental combinations, unusual harmonies, and a haltingly sweet voice. She retains the husky-timbred strings of two banjo-ancestor ngonis and the discreet charm of the pentatonic scale-ancient usages that hardly equal commercial suicide at a time when Malians are African music's biggest single export.

The set began quietly but built in volume, with Traoré's voice growing stronger until, practicing her English, she exhorted the crowd to dance. The closest she came to showbiz was two exhibitions of traditional steps-storklike, gravity-defying leaps. If she'd done it just a little more, if the five-person band had grooved a little louder and stronger, she would have brought down the house. But the house was on its feet anyway, something new in the shade-so many white-haired heads swaying, bopping, singing along to the "Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh!"

Personally, I find traditional stuff hookier--Sangare's my diva. Still, it was a treat to watch Rokia Traoré preach to the unconverted, and get over.

Village Voice, Sept. 5, 2000