Rokia, the griot tradition isn't that well-known here in Europe. Even though you're not from a griot family yourself, could you enlighten us?
Rokia Traore: "In fact it's rather complicated, but I'll try to simplify things. Mali is a country that was at the centre of various empires of which the Mandingo empire was the most important. The Mandingo empire did not have a tradition of keeping written records, so the whole Malian history was transmitted orally from generation to generation. This was the task of the griot families; from father to son or from mother to daughter, they kept alive the story of a noble family or a king. Each time an important event happened, it was added to the story. Sadly, because no written records were kept, in some cases legend slowly mixed in with actual fact. Today, their role is limited to singing songs of praise. In my family, for example, there was an ancestor who was a general in the army of Soundiata Keita. When a griot will sing an ode to the Traore family, he will start with this ancestor's story and continue all the way up until today. In most of the Malian tribes only the griots have the right to sing and play music. Luckily, things have changed somewhat in recent years. In my tribe (the Bambara or Bamana are a Mande people living in West Africa, primarily in Mali but also in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal. They are considered to be amongst the largest Mande ethnic groups, and are the dominant Mande group in Mali, with 80% of the population speaking the Bambara language, regardless of ethnicity, red.), you can sing and make music just as long as you don't sing songs of praise; that right is still exclusively retained for the griots. I'm an exception really; not only do I not stem from a griot background, I also never had any formal musical training. Ouassoulou, the region in Mali where I was born, is a very musical area. Youssou N'Dour was also born there. Apart from the griot tradition, you also had the so-called post-colonial school, orchestras like Super Etoile de Dakar and Baobab (Orchestra Baobab, red.) or Bembeya Jazz from Guinea Conakry. In Mali you had the Railband and the Biton (Super Biton, red.). A lot of great musicians - people like Salif Keita and Ali Farka Toure - started off in those bands. Personally, I'm from a whole new generation. I just went to high school like everyone else. I had a guitar and just taught myself to play. Later on, I also started to write my own lyrics."
What were your main musical influences?
Rokia Traore: "A bit of everything really. I started travelling at a very young age and that gave me the opportunity to listen to a whole variety of music. My influences range from jazz over classical music to traditional Malian music and not forgetting rock, blues, pop and reggae on the way. I really listened to a lot of music growing up. My father was an amateur musician himself and he had a huge vinyl collection. He introduced me to things like Dire Straits or The Rolling Stones. If I hadn't travelled, I don't think I would have had as broad a spectre of musical influences as I have now."
You perform all over the world, but you sing exclusively in your native Bambara tongue. Do you think western audiences can fully grasp the meaning of your songs?
Rokia Traore: "Well, exactly for that reason, I started out my career writing lyrics in English and French. In the beginning, the lines I wrote weren't even intended to be used as song lyrics; I just loved to write down my thoughts and feelings. When I started playing the guitar, I tried to put my poems to music. At one stage I decided I wanted to try and find my own thing and write in Bambara. At that time I had just learned the phonetic Bambara alphabet in college, but still, writing in an oral language proved far from easy. Bambara is a very figurative language and it's very hard to write certain things down in words. In Mali, for a long time, the same songs were passed on; each new singer adding his lines to the original and leaving a few old ones out. Singing this way meant that a song would be different each time it was performed. When I started writing my songs in Bambara it immediately created a buzz. I respect my fans a lot, though, and that's why in the booklets accompanying my albums you will always find a translation of my songs. It's not a word-for-word translation, but you'll get what the song is about. Like I just said, Bambara is a very figurative language and translating it word for word would be senseless. Little by little I'm adding some songs in French and English to my repertoire. My public in Europe and America is growing larger and larger and, as a sign of respect, I like to sing to them in their own language, all of that of course without dismissing my repertoire in Bambara."
Part of the song 'Sara', from your album 'Bowmboï', goes as follows: "You are revered as long as you retain your greatness. Others admire you and hate you as well." Is that part autobiographical?
Rokia Traore: "No, it is just things I observed. There are moments in life when you think you are the only one suffering certain things, but when you take a moment to reflect, you realise everyone has similar problems. No one is unique and we all suffer the same little things. The song is my analysis of human relations. People aren't necessarily evil as such, but they fail to control their selfishness and jealousy. Sometimes it's enough to take a step backward and not react at all to make the other person realise the error of his or her ways. Hate, jealousy and love are universal emotions. In 'Sara' I'm talking about an ideal: a worldly wisdom that one generally only attains at a very old age and that requires a vast amount of life experience."
'Kôté Don' talks about everyday rebellion, being different and especially about being a woman in Africa and in the rest of the world. As a musician would you consider yourself to be rebellious?
Rokia Traore: "Not at all, no. I'm an individual who, confronted with her past, heritage and culture, has managed to find equilibrium in life. In Mali, the reactions to what I do and stand for are very varied, but generally people respect me because I also respect them. I travelled a lot and to stay in touch with my own culture I certainly had to make an effort. People realise that and respect it. I never felt the need to be aggressive. In my songs I speak about a certain generation: the youths in my country who went to school, got a western education and are now torn between modern and traditional values. In the period before the colonisation almost everything in Malian culture was secret. With every important step you made in life, for example, from childhood to adolescence or from adolescence to adulthood, you were told some of those secrets. In this society you never learned about the secrets of another. A boy would never been told about the secrets of a girl, for example. In the modern school, secrets don't exist and asking questions is encouraged. Everything is explained and nothing remains a mystery. This situation has created a rupture in Malian society. The things the youths learn in school have little or nothing to do with the education they get at home. The weight of tradition remains heavy and a lot of youths feel misunderstood. A little child that asks too many questions is seen as a negative thing in Mali and will be told to shut up. The song talks about that new "lost" generation. 'Kôté Don' is the voice of a youngster asking to be given the chance to be himself and that his curiosity not be confounded with shameless behaviour. It's about a young person walking a tightrope, trying not to lose his balance."
When a well-travelled person like you talks of issues like that, isn't it perceived as being shocking in Mali?
Rokia Traore: "Some might find it shocking, others won't. As I said, I found a certain equilibrium. People know I'm sincere in what I do and say. I say what I have to say but without disrespecting people. I certainly have issues I don't agree with, but I don't feel the need to be aggressive about it. I've never had any real problems in Mali and I love returning there every time. I respect the elders, but I also stand my ground. When an elder makes a mistake, I will calmly and patiently point this out. Shocking people doesn't work; in Mali you have to take your time. I think I was lucky that when I travelled, I was never gone for too long; that has allowed me to grow and learn without really losing touch with my roots."
Musically, some songs are similar to the work of your compatriots Habib Koite and Oumou Sangare.
Rokia Traore: "They are both fantastic musicians and if you tell me today my music is similar to theirs, the better. They made me dream! Those people already have a career of 15 or 20 years behind them. I listened to their music for years without ever hoping I would join them one day."
No plans for any collaborations yet?
Rokia Traore: "No, not really. There are many artists in Mali, but we're not all really friends as such. We know and respect each other, but our schedules usually push us in different directions. I did a collaboration with Kar Kar, though (Boubacar Traore, red.) and on 'Bowmboï' there's a track with Ousmane Sacko."
To end the interview, I would like to confront you with a couple of words. You can just explain what they mean to you. Let's start with: Mali?
Rokia Traore: "The basis of everything I do; my roots. If I wouldn't have Mali, I would feel lost. It's my family and my history. It's my foundation and everything else is secondary."
Rokia Traore: "That's what keeps me alive. It's like a therapy that allows me to express things I wouldn't know how to otherwise."
And in conclusion, who is Rokia Traore?
Rokia Traore: "Unfortunately I will never know the full answer to that question. I even believe that the point where you truly get a person, know what they are about, is when they've already passed on. At this point in time, I really feel I haven't lived enough yet; there isn't enough history yet to fully comprehend who I am. There is of course what I would like to be: honest, sincere, serene, balanced, calm, happy and not selfish. I don't want to be jealous or angry. These are my values, the goals I want to attain, but I don't know if I ever will. Others will know me sooner than I will know myself. I just cited everything I would like to be, but who I am now, I don't know."