Rokia Traoré playing as part of the small world Music festival at the Bamboo Cabana (245 Queen's Quay West), Sunday (October 3). $25-$30. 416-631-4311, 416-366-7723. www.smallworldmusic.com. Rating: NNNNN
Riding the Wassoulou wave out of Mali, Rokia Traoré has taken the world music scene by storm.
Her first two recordings - 1998's Mouneïssa (Indigo) and 2000's Wanita (Indigo) - have clocked relatively huge sales and earned the brilliant Bamako-raised singer/guitarist gushing critical praise for her forward-looking approach to rootsy traditionalism.
While seamlessly incorporating Western and Middle Eastern musical structures and sonorities, Traoré still relies on the acoustic bedrock provided by the djembe, n'goni, balafon and gaita of her folkloric heritage.
Traoré is now considered one of the most important artists to come out of Mali since her mentor, Ali Farka Touré, but her achievements have yet to be recognized by the male-dominated music community at home. The quietly intense Traoré shrugs off that fact in conversation as if the lack of respect is no big deal, but you can tell it's a sore point.
"Because I had no official training in music, am not a griot by heritage and didn"t attend the National School of Arts like all of the other musicians in Mali," explains Traoré from New York City, "people in my country have always had trouble accepting me as a professional musician. I became popular in Mali after performing three songs - just voice and guitar - on national television, yet most musicians saw my success as something that happened completely by chance and wouldn't last.
"But I"ve been performing all over the world and recording for seven years. I know that a seven-year career isn"t very impressive, but it"s still a career. So I think there has been a change where some musicians respect me as a singer, but that"s it. In Mali there aren"t any women composers or arrangers, so many people have a problem with me trying to do that."
Of course, that hasn"t stopped Traoré from writing politically incisive songs questioning gender roles and outdated cultural conventions in her homeland. Nor has it prevented her from seeking out creative collaborations with other prominent artists. And Traoré appears to have found musical soulmates in the adventurous Kronos Quartet.
Her two San Francisco throwdowns with the stellar string combo are definitely the main attraction of her dazzling new Bowmboï (Nonesuch) disc, which she also co-produced. But their amazing rapport in the studio isn"t something that happened spontaneously.
"I really loved the Kronos Quartet from the first time I heard them four years ago. Each project they did was so completely different from the previous ones. It showed me that they must be very open-minded musicians, respectful of the compositions yet receptive to new ideas.
"What really impressed me was how they use their background in classical music to do something that sounds so modern and contemporary. In that way, it seems very similar to what I"m trying to do with African music. That"s the link that suggested we might be able to work together."
Over the course of the next three years, they remained in contact, both parties agreeing that human interaction was crucial to make the unlikely pairing work. While on tour in the United States, Traoré hung out with the Kronos crew in San Francisco. When Kronos travelled across Europe, she hooked up with them again in France, all the time exchanging ideas about the collaboration.
"It surprised me how very humble they were. Even though my seven-year career is nothing compared to what they"ve accomplished in 30 years, they had great respect for me and my music.
"At first I thought they might suggest we work on a piece by one of their well-known composer friends, but David Harrington said, 'You should write something, and we"ll work it out together." That was amazing to me. They treated me like a peer. It was a fantastic experience."