Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Track of the Week

Rokia Traoré – Ka Moun Ké

The story of Rokia Traoré usually starts with a discussion about caste in Malian society. Though music is very much the life-blood of Malian society its creation and practice has traditionally been regarded as a profession of a “certain lowly caste” called “griots“. Now, this description of a “lowly caste” is slightly at odds with the perception of a griot as “something of a societal leader due to his traditional position as an adviser to royal personages”. The best comparison that can be made in a British perspective is that of a bard.

However, unlike bards, griots are not a a thing of the past. Originating from the 13th Century Mali Empire they continue to serve a crucial role in Mali today.  Naturally, they have modernised. For example Bakari Sumano – the head of Malian association of griots till his death in 2003 – acted as a consultant to UNESCO and participated in seminars around the world.

So, why does this matter to the story of Rokia Traoré? Stacia Proefrock explains:

“Rokia Traore’s family was both a blessing and a curse for her musical career. Her father was a diplomat and she spent her childhood travelling over several continents, to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and France. There she was exposed to a variety of styles of music, from classical, jazz, and pop to Indian traditional composition. However, her family was also part of Mali’s nobility, which has traditional caste prohibitions against their members making music.”

Luckily for us, the listener, her family – though not initially keen on her musical ambitions – were not strict enough to prevent her from pursuing it. Her adventures around the world have had a profound effect on her music, producing a  worldly blend of traditional and modern instruments fashioned in her own personalised style.

This week’s track is a great example of the above. It shows her characteristically strong but smooth vocals over a gentle minimalist mix of traditional Malian sounds over a rhythm of electric guitar and a steady jazz beat.

Rokia Traoré – Ka Moun Ké

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