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Wed September 25, 2013
Music

Rokia Traoré On Taking Up Music, And Mali's 'Iron Women'

Originally published on Thu September 26, 2013 7:40 pm

When war broke out in the West African nation of Mali last year, one of the targets was that country's ancient music tradition. As Islamist rebels occupied northern Mali, they banned music and shut down clubs and record shops.

At the time, Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré was finishing her fifth album. Traoré is the daughter of a Malian diplomat, so she grew up moving from continent to continent, absorbing all kinds of musical influences. But her homeland takes center stage on her new record, Beautiful Africa.

"I am singing about all my relatives and friends living in the countryside in Mali and in Africa," Traoré says of the album's closing track, "Sarama." "These women are simply amazing, because when I feel tired I imagine them in their life of every day. They never show that they are tired. They are like iron women: all the time working, but working and smiling and taking care of everything with nothing to support them.

"The amazing thing," she adds, "is that when I go back to my parents' village ... all these people telling me that they are impressed by me, it really makes me cry because they cannot imagine how beautiful they are in the middle of this very difficult life. And I wanted to sing that for them, and to say thank you for being my source of inspiration."

Rokia Traoré also spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about becoming a musician against her parents' wishes, and how it helped her make peace with a conflicted sense of cultural identity. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. When war broke out in the west African nation of Mali last year, one of the targets was that country's ancient music tradition. As Islamist rebels occupied northern Mali, they banned music and shut down clubs and record shops.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: At the time, Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore was finishing her fifth album. It's now complete, it's called "Beautiful Africa."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Rokia Traore is the daughter of a Malian diplomat and so she grew up moving from continent to continent, absorbing all kinds of musical influences and she joins me now here in our studios. Ms. Traore, welcome to the program.

ROKIA TRAORE: Thank you.

BLOCK: We hear you in the song singing in Bomborai(ph). You also sing in French and in English and this song is all about violent conflict in Africa, right, in Congo and in Mali and other countries. Why do you call it "Beautiful Africa"?

TRAORE: Because these conflicts are mine. They are in these countries which are mine because I am an African. And what you can see in media is like there's no longer life possible there in these countries. So I'm simply not saying that it's the best place in the world and it's the best culture. No. But I have a responsibility what happened and I knew I love Africa, of course.

BLOCK: And I knew I am proud of Africa and I trust in Africa and I just wanted to sing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Talk a bit about your own personal journey toward becoming a musician and picking up the guitar. I mean, I mentioned you're the daughter of a diplomat. This wasn't an obvious path for you to follow. How did it happen?

TRAORE: It wasn't expected and my parents were definitely disappointed.

BLOCK: They were? They did not think this is what they wanted you to do?

TRAORE: Yeah, as all parents, they wanted me to be the closest to them in life. Both of them were civil servants and my dad is the one who pushed me to have an interest in music and culture in general. And when I told him that I wanted to stop my studies and start music, what he said was that I pushed you to have an interest in music for your general culture and for your education.

BLOCK: But not to do it as a living

TRAORE: (Unintelligible) yourself. And I said, well, but you were a musician.

BLOCK: He played saxophone.

TRAORE: Yes. And he said, you have no training in music. This is a very bad idea. So for something like two years, he didn't want to talk to me.

BLOCK: You didn't talk to your father for two years?

TRAORE: He didn't want to talk to me.

BLOCK: No kidding.

TRAORE: Yes.

BLOCK: That's a long time to wait.

TRAORE: It is. At the same time, I felt like I couldn't - you know, there are some things where you know, you have this profound conviction that what you're doing and how you're doing is the right way. And after a year and a half, my first album came out and he cried a lot and said, I probably should trust in her and I didn't.

BLOCK: I'm talking with the singer and songwriter Rokia Traore from Mali. We're listening to a song here called "La La." What do you hear as you listen to this?

TRAORE: Maybe.

BLOCK: That's what it translates to.

TRAORE: La la means maybe. And, yes, and I think this word eventually is la la. You don't know. You can plan things. You can have a strong will, but we have to accept that nobody on this earth knows what will happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: What are we hearing musically here? What instruments?

TRAORE: (Unintelligible) which is the traditional lute and there are three guitars, drums and double bass. I am on the bass. I'm in the main melody.

BLOCK: Can you sing it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAORE: (Singing)

BLOCK: You have traveled all over the world. As a child, you grew up in many different countries, different continents. Where do we hear the diverse musical influences in these songs? What are you drawing on here?

TRAORE: I don't know. It's very difficult to know exactly what I learned where. It's just a global thing, you are. And growing up between two cultures makes you this kind of person all the time, in the middle of something, but never totally something. And music helped me to feel good with myself and with this double identity.

BLOCK: Your double identity. You're part European, part African.

TRAORE: Yes.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about a song on the album that's an ode to the women of Africa.

TRAORE: "Sarama."

BLOCK: And what does that mean?

TRAORE: Sarama means a charming person. And more than that, someone that's amazing. You just look at and you have no word to define how you love, how much you appreciate the person. This is a sarama person.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: Rokia Traore, what inspired this song and what are you singing about here?

TRAORE: I am singing about all my relatives and friends living in the countryside in Mali and in Africa. These women are simply amazing because when I feel tired, I imagine them in their life of every day. They never show that they are tired. They are like iron women: all the time working, but working and smiling and taking care of everything with nothing to support them.

BLOCK: Iron women.

TRAORE: They are for me. And the amazing thing is that when I go back to my parents' village, all these people telling me that they are impressed by me, it really makes me cry because they cannot imagine how beautiful they are in the middle of this very difficult life. And I wanted to sing that for them and to say thank you for being my source of inspiration.

BLOCK: That's lovely. It's a beautiful song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRAORE: (Singing) And if they do their candle, I want it to be a tribute to you.

BLOCK: Rokia Traore from Mali. Her new album is "Beautiful Africa." It's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

TRAORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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