There was a Malian buzz at the recent WOMAD festival in Reading, England, and for a change it had nothing to do with Ali Farka Toure, but, rather, with his guitar-slinging protege Rokia Traoré.
Like her iconoclastic mentor, the 25-year-old diplomat's daughter isn't content to follow tradition. She intends to start one of her own.
On her beguiling new Wanita (Indigo) album, Traoré employs the traditional tools of the folkloric trade: n'goni, kora, calabash and shekere. However, the rhythms and arrangements owe as much to her favourite Rolling Stones, Peter Tosh and Neville Brothers records as to the bluesy Songhai praise music she heard from Toure. It's an intoxicating twang that somehow manages to sound ancient and modern at the same time.
"For me, it's important to maintain a connection to the past," explains Traoré through her manager, Thomas Weill, who doubles as translator. "I think you can hear that in the traditional instruments I use.
Script flip "Where you might recognize the influence of rhythm and blues, jazz, rock and reggae is in the way I combine instruments that aren't typically used together, the way I structure my songs and how I sing."
Unlike brassy singers of Mali's popular Wassoulou tradition like Nahawa Doumbia and the celebrated Oumou Sangaré, who also sing in a dialect of Bamana, Traoré prefers to whisper, not shout. If the overpowering Sangaré is the Aretha Franklin of southern Mali, then the introspective Traoré is the Ann Peebles.
"I have great respect for tradition, and I don't ignore it. But there are many artists already doing that very well so I see no reason why I should do it, too. I'm trying instead to create something new by mixing the traditional language with my influences from abroad."
While Traoré's refreshing roots renovation has been received enthusiastically throughout Europe and the United Kingdom, her forward-looking attitudes have caused a stir of a different nature back home in Bamako.
Evidently, some of Traoré's more progressive social commentary, such as the yet-to-be-recorded Towsoni -- which allegorically alludes to the disparity between the sexes in Malian society -- is very controversial.
"Lots of people, not just men, were shocked. It was a scandal. There are some who criticize me for expressing my views, and others who wonder aloud why I couldn't find something worthwhile to sing about.
"I believe people should be left to make their own choices in life. In Mali, many women still choose to continue living as they have in the past. They want their freedom, but they aren't interested in doing the work that independence requires. I hope this will change."
Takeover scheme For now, Traoré is focused on taking over North America, which won't be easy for someone singing exclusively in Bamana. Of course, there's always a chance that the collaboration ruse that proved successful for Ali Farka Toure (at Harbourfront August 11) will also work for Traoré. Someone get Ry Cooder on the line.
"How did you know about that," gasps translator Weill, momentarily reverting to manager mode. "We haven't even gotten to America yet."
"From what I've heard," continues Traoré, "there might be something being planned, but it's not yet clear what's going to happen.
"I would be very happy to have the experience of working with a great musician like Ry Cooder. I think I would be comfortable with that kind of collaboration. At the moment, though, I'm putting all my thoughts and energy into my performances.
"This tour of North America is like another start for me. Since I'll be playing songs from my new album, I'm curious about what the reaction might be. But just seeing that the venues wherever I play are completely full makes me feel like my dreams are already coming true."
ROKIA TRAORE, with UMURISHO RHYTHM, at the Harbourfront Concert Stage (235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (August 5) at 8 pm. Free. 973-3000.