Mali’s Rokia Traoré mixes up musical influences for ‘Beautiful Africa’

December 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Not even a ban on music could stop Mali-born Rokia Traoré from telling her stories through song. On her new album "Beautiful Africa," Traoré pays tribute to her native continent as well as other musical styles and languages from around the world. Jeffrey Brown talks to the singer-songwriter about inspiration and influences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a different kind of a look at Africa, through song.

Jeffrey Brown talks with one of the continent’s biggest stars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Born in the West African nation of Mali, daughter of a diplomat posted around the world, Rokia Traore and her music are a mix of African and Western influences and languages. Her musical career took off in the 1990s. And she later moved back permanently to Bamako, Mali’s capital, where she’s lived through the troubled recent times for her country, including an Islamist insurgency that for a time lead to the burning of precious manuscripts and books and banning of music in parts of the north.

Traore’s new album addresses the problems of Mali and the continent, but also, as its title, “Beautiful Africa” suggests, much more.

We talked recently in Washington, and I asked her first how she describes her music.

ROKIA TRAORE, musician: I would describe my music as Malian contemporary music, a mix of a profound Malian culture in which my music and, yes, my personality is rooted, and also opened to all my influences I had during my travels when I was a child.

JEFFREY BROWN: So a mix of traditional Malian music and all that you have experienced since?

ROKIA TRAORE: A mix, and a mix, but a natural mix, because I don’t try to mix things because I want to make a mix, but I am the mix.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are the mix.


JEFFREY BROWN: This is you, who you are.

ROKIA TRAORE: And I simply have to do things the most natural — and, yes, very naturally. And it gives what my music is.

And anything I do in my everyday life is also this mix. And I feel good with this mix. I feel good having different cultures around me. My band is made from people coming from Italy who stay in U.K. and Malians and French people. And I like that. We speak several languages, and we go from one language to another one.

And my life is — my life is like that, and I like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this new album, you seem very concerned to sing about Africa, its problems and its beauty. Why do you — why do you want to sing of that?

ROKIA TRAORE: Singing about Africa is like singing about myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s like singing about yourself?

ROKIA TRAORE: Absolutely.

It’s like singing about my story in terms of how my — I am related to this country, even more than what people can think around me, because, eventually, the way I grew up, I am always considered like someone I am not where I am, in Africa, too much European, and, in Europe, still African.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you always felt yourself sort of an outsider?

ROKIA TRAORE: Not just a feeling, but it is something real.

Yes, this album definitely, for me, it’s a way to talk about my relationship with Mali, with Africa, so to talk about myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, on a news program like ours, we’re always — when we look at Africa, it’s usually reporting on the bad things, right, the wars and the poverty.

You acknowledge that in your songs, but you want us to know there’s something more.

ROKIA TRAORE: Some things people see more through media which give them a very negative image of Africa is — are things we live there every day, but also there are some other things which are more positive and, I don’t know how to say, just a normal life and joyful things and just glad to be an African and living there.

And it’s not — when you see through — Africa through developed countries’ medias, it is like a continent where everybody want to go out and nobody want to stay there, Africans. I’m telling about Africans.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t recognize that Africa.

ROKIA TRAORE: No, because it’s not my case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want to ask you about one particular song.

It’s “Sarama,” because it is a tribute to women in Africa. And you say — you say, “Anything good I can do, I want it to be a tribute to you,” speaking of women in Mali.


ROKIA TRAORE: I’m amazed by the way they are and the way they face their everyday life.

They don’t see themselves as victims. An African woman or a Malian woman or in my village will never tell me — complain, let’s say, will never complain about her everyday life. She states it and she smiles with that. And for her, it is just her life.

And I admire this fact. And I — it’s a source of inspiration for me, really.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you look at what’s going on in your country?

ROKIA TRAORE: The most complicated and the very important question we were wondering about was when we will be able to manage the situation in the country in general.

And I knew that, as soon as everything will become normal, music will start again. And now I think there are more songs about what happened in Mali than there could be if the situation didn’t happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, really? So, all of that has led to more music?

ROKIA TRAORE: More music, of course. Music is like what you think and what you feel in your deep inside.

You don’t find the right words to say, but you can play it, and you can express it, express it in an artistical way. You cannot stop that in a whole country and in a country like Mali.


Your new album is “Beautiful Africa.”

Rokia Traore, thank you so much.

ROKIA TRAORE: Thank you for having me.