Mali is a West African country that seems to export more music than most of that continent, which is why it was all the more shocking when it was threatened earlier this year by an extremist Islam takeover of the country's north, which coincided with a coup d'etat in the capital of Bamako. Among other atrocities, the fundamentalist Islamists wanted to ban music. A French military intervention helped stabilize the situation somewhat, a move that was supported by even some of the most peacenik musicians I know, who had travelled to Mali years earlier.
That context informs part of my enjoyment of the new Rokia Traoré album: after all, what better to inflame the ignorant than a female singer and killer instrumentalist who lives a cosmopolitan life that thrives on cultural exchange between Europe and Mali? But more importantly, Beautiful Africa, her fifth release, is simply gorgeous: not just Traoré's stunning vocals, but her entire band's performance and the production of PJ Harvey's right-hand man, John Parish.
I had a chance to talk to her earlier this month, in advance of her show this Wednesday, Nov. 27, at Koerner Hall in Toronto, for this article in The Grid. We chatted during a week when I was glued to 24-hour news stations detailing the misadventures of my arrogant, hubristic and downright dangerous and ignorant mayor. Speaking to a woman with such a beautiful, lilting and comforting voice about the horrors and the beauty of her own country, and about the virtues of pleasure, courage, humility and beauty—all running themes throughout Beautiful Africa—during a ridiculous news cycle in my hometown was a glorious respite, to say the least.
November 5, 2013
On the phone from Brussels
In almost every song you talk about pleasure, courage, humility and beauty. Those four words are in almost every song on the record.
All of these words are connected. I haven’t realized, but now when I listen to you, I think you’re right. Yes, it’s about life, and how to take advantage of good things in this life: you must be honest and at peace with yourself. Being courageous is important, to have a clear idea of who you want to be. You have to be courageous enough to realize your own bad sides and realize you’re not perfect. Then you can experience love and beauty. All these words are connected.
Is it possible to courageous and humble at the same time?
You must be courageous to experience humility, to accept your limit in this life. It’s very difficult. For some people all these things are sad: to realize you are nothing and are here for a limited time. You are limited yourself in what you can do and who you can be. Accepting all that mean you know what humility is. To be humble, you have to be courageous.
Then you can experience “all pleasure without measure,” is that correct?
Totally. You cannot make ego disappear. Knowing it’s there, you can accept it and say, ‘I know you’re there but I’m not going to follow you.’ You feel at peace with yourself once you can deal with your ego. There are so many things we feel bad about in this life because of our ego. If we can deal with our ego all these things will not be a problem.
When have you had to deal with your ego?
I keep it with me. We are like friends. I can say, ‘I know you’re there and trying to take control, but I don’t want that.’ I can feel it. I can’t say I don’t like it, because you need it sometimes. But I play with it and have fun with it but I don’t let it take control.
You kind of need it when you’re on stage with Paul McCartney and John Paul Jones, don’t you?
(laughs) That is just pleasure, sharing the stage with musicians I’ve listened to for years, and I imagined I would meet them one day. They are great people. You want to talk about humility? These are two people who are very good examples, very peaceful people. I was pleased to share some moments with them, to work with them and discuss with them and have them among my friends.
I didn’t know about that Africa Express tour until I was getting ready to talk to you. It sounds like quite an adventure.
It was a great opportunity to meet some people and share some time with them. The two other Africa Express projects have been just during the weekend, and you’re in the same hotel. It’s not the same as being on a train for a whole week. Of course we were not sleeping on the train; we had hotels. But yes, it’s an organization, every morning everybody having breakfast at the same time, and we were generally the only customers of the hotel we’re staying in. In some train stations while waiting we’d play some music. It was a great experience to share with some musicians you don’t have opportunities to meet.
Was it only in Britain?
It was in U.K., all around. It was a city per day for seven days.
Do you know many of the musicians from Mali that we all know in the West?
Of course. I know them and there is a respect between us. It’s not like I see everyone every day in Bamako. We have different sides of life in different areas. Everytime I see Amadou and Mariam we say, ‘Oh yes, when are you going to be back in Bamako?’ And we make plans to see each other there, but of course we never do—for 10 years now! I don’t see these people except when we’re performing at the same festival.
When did you spend the most time in Bamako?
I still live there now. I grew up going back and forth, because a diplomat [her father] cannot be in one place for more than three or five years, I can’t remember the rules in Mali, so every year we’d come back for 100 days. Since I started working I’m back and forth there all the time; I go to Bamako to rehearse. I always had a band of half Malians, half Europeans. Five years ago I moved back there: I have a place there, I have a foundation there, I work with amazing young musicians. Bamako is my base, and I have a secondary house in Brussels, which is my European base.
Did you leave the country after the troubles last year to keep your family safe?
Not really. I couldn’t leave because of all the projects I have there that depend terribly on me. The foundation is still at a young stage, we are building studios. Also my house is there. But I had to send my son to school in France to stay with his dad. So I’ve been travelling between Bamako and Europe for work but also to spend time with my son, who’s been there for a year now. I couldn’t imagine leaving him in Bamako when I would leave for work. If I was there with him all the time, I wouldn’t feel any fear, but you cannot leave a country at war with a seven-year-old child behind you. I didn’t want that. So I’m more back and forth than I was two years ago, but home is still Bamako.
You’ve said that without music, Mali would not exist. Could a regime that bans music, as the Islamists would do, ever have a chance of successfully controlling that population?
Culture will continue. In Mali we are in the middle of a very special period. Yes, things are fragile. As fast as the destruction started, the stability started the same way, surprising everybody. People saw that it was impossible to organize elections; I always said we need elections, because there was no choice, it was either elections or a situation that would get worse and worse. With elections, we could at least expect the beginning of a reorganization and reconstruction. Elections went really well, maybe one of the best in Africa in recent years. In terms of candidates trying to do things in a bad way, to win even though they weren’t winning, no one tried things like that. Malians really participated. It was probably the highest percentage of people voting since the democracy started, and we chose a president whose work is very difficult.
Now things are fragile because the North—when a situation is melded to religion and extremism it’s always complicated and things cannot be stable in a couple of months. We also have had this situation since the ’60s in the north of Mali with the Tuareg rebellion. All these are problems we have to solve. At the same time, the way leaders used to manage the country will no longer work. When Tuaregs say that Malian governments don’t take care of them, it’s important to know for people who don’t know this country that governments in general don’t take care of countrysides—not just in the north of Mali, but everywhere. Of course the situation with Tuaregs is historically complicated, and the real reason is not the government taking care of people. And you can’t even say all Tuaregs, because not all of them were supporting this rebellion.
Weren’t they betrayed by the extremists? The Tuareg supported them initially until they realized how bad it was going to be.
Yes, absolutely. So some Tuaregs are part of it, but even in the same tribe not everyone is supporting it. But we are self-confident and trust in the possibility of continuing to push Mali toward a better situation.
What role do musicians play in maintaining stability?
Doing our best and trying to use music the best way it’s supposed to be used, and has been used for centuries in Mali, when it was part of kingdoms and empires in West Africa. Music was a means of communication and education, and a means to make the connection between different tribes and ethnic groups. We’re in a situation where music has an important role. It depends on the ability of artists to make this work, not as in the past, because we are not in the past, but using new structures and ways of doing things and means of communication to do what we used to do with music in West Africa and Mali. It makes our role more interesting but also more complicated.
In this case, the threat to Mali is posed by people who don’t think there should be music at all, outside of prayer music. Does that make it more clear cut?
When we were under occupation—when the North was under occupation—there were worse things going on: people killed, women and children treated in a very bad way. It’s shocking for someone doesn’t live in Mali and knows the country for its music, but for me, a Malian, I have relatives and friends who were directly in the situation in the North. You are so preoccupied by the human situation, so yes, when this thing with music happened, it was like a joke. As a Malian, you think we will never stop music, because for us, music is not what they are describing. You understand how differently people can think, and how the difference and diversity can be a source of destruction, when it must be a way to bond us together. In diversity, we have something to learn from each other, from everyone. Nobody is superior: I know things you don’t know and vice versa.
When you are from there, and when you are crazy and destroyed inside your mind because you didn’t expect that to happen, and then you reach another step and you are really fearing very bad things that are already happening all around you, and then you reach another step: you have no fear at all. You are able to really analyze what’s really going on.
You sound like the daughter of a diplomat.
(laughs) Yes, let’s say.
Tell me about Foundation Passerelle. What is it and when did you start it?
It’s a contribution to the development of the music economy in Mali. As a musician, I can bring something that the Malian government and the ministry of culture cannot bring, because they are not on the road as I am. They haven’t had the chance to experience these stages and they don’t know what being an artist is. So I can bring my experience to complement what they are doing. Also, all Malian musicians try to contribute to the development of the country. I work with young artists and we’re building a stage where I hope we can provide young musicians with professional conditions to perform, and encourage the show business side of Bamako. It’s not about how to make money. And I think this work is even more important now than before the troubles.
You were mentored by Ali Farka Toure, were you not? Did you teach you similar lessons to what your foundation is doing now?
Ali was a dear friend of mine. We had a special relationship when we learned that Ali was a neighbor of my mother’s. His wife used to take care of me when I was a baby. What Ali did for me was preparing me for my first recording. While we were in the studio, my mother, who was in Brussels because my father was still working there, came to visit me. I was surprised to see her and Ali giving each other a big hug. I said, ‘What, you know each other?’ My mother said, ‘Yes, of course, he knows you since you were a baby.’ Ali said, ‘My God, is this the baby Rokia I used to take care of and have in my house all day long?’ He was a mentor, just telling me what a tour is, what a career is, and how relaxed I should be about my career, and not to always have more and more ambition, because that can destroy your ability to appreciate your professional career as a musician. He was definitely a friend, with whom I could speak about my fears concerning my profession. Even though my career started after that first album, I couldn’t always talk to Ali because I was always on the road. He was too. He was such an exceptional person—I don’t know, you can’t have so many friends like that in a lifetime.
Tell me about working with Toni Morrison on the Desdemona project. What did you learn?
So many things. I’m so lucky, I’ve been working as a professional and going to university at the same time—and working with Toni Morrison was that. It was a great way to learn while you’re working.
Did you know each other’s work?
Yes, Toni knew. [The British theatre director] Peter Sellars I met first, and he was a friend of Toni’s; he gave her my album and she knew everything on it, and that’s why she wanted to work with me. We met a year and a half before and she told me about the project. When she told me she must give me her email address, I thought, ‘Wow!’ Desdemona was a great experience, and I learned so much professionally about the stage, and it was my first time in theatre.
I love what John Parish brings to this record. What’s your favourite PJ Harvey record?
Actually, I listened to his other projects, including his own albums. Professionally, I simply respect John’s work on all projects he produces. I hear one thing: the ability to use the essential, not more, not less. That doesn’t mean having a clean sound, but just what you need according to who the artist is. I could hear through his work with other artists his ability to be sensitive to bring the artist what he needs, to make the project the best possible, not trying to exist through the artist’s work.
Tell me about the song “Beautiful Africa.”
It’s the only song directly connected to the situation in Mali. I have no word to describe the spirit in which I was when that happened. First you are so scared that you feel like you are no longer existing. You don’t know what to do. The day before I couldn’t imagine a coup d’etat in Mali. After the coup d’etat, for two weeks, things were getting worse and unbelievable things were happening. I couldn’t imagine half of Mali being occupied by extremist Islamists. You fear when you have an idea of the danger. You see all your dreams about your country and your environment getting destroyed. Several questions at the same time you cannot answer. People around you are asking questions you cannot answer. And you cannot show them you do not know.
For example, the youngsters I work with at the foundation: How can I tell them? We were supposed to fly that day for a tour. Are we going to leave Mali? And my son asking me, ‘What is a coup d’etat?’ And me trying to protect him. He’s say, ‘They killed this person. Why did they do that?’ And I’d say, ‘How did you know that?’ You are the mother, the sister, the daughter, and you are the teacher of many students you can no longer teach because you have stay inside your home. You have to know when you can go out and get food. And if you leave, where do you go? What about your parents, who are old? Will they stay in Mali? There are so many things happening that you no longer know in what spirit you are. You do not sleep, day and night, you try to find solutions.
After two weeks of that you feel very bizarre. But we kept going on with all the projects at the foundation. July arrived and I didn’t feel better because the problem was still going on and the rest of the world was starting to tell about it, but telling about it in the wrong way. When you hear their opinion of what’s going on in your country you don’t even recognize your own country. I thought, well, I can leave Mali and go somewhere else. I am not obliged to stay there. I can provide my parents with all they need. Why do I still want to stay there and make things? It came back to me in a beautiful way, in a way I never realized before. I simply love Africa. And I wanted to write a song about that, just to explain how a country in war can still be someone’s country.