Early in Rokia Traoré's career, a lazy music writer called her the "Malian Tracy Chapman," which is a slam on both artists. They're both guitar-playing, dark-skinned women, but that's about as far as it goes. Traoré is now on the brink of the international success Chapman has enjoyed for years, but she's done it on her own terms, with all the poise, grace, and grit of her struggle evident on Bowmboi, a collection that amplifies her strengths and shows her striking out in bold, unexpected directions.
The most obvious examples of her outside-the-box thinking are the two tracks she cut with the Kronos Quartet, "Manlan" and the title track. On the latter, for example, the Quartet provides a minimal bass line and a funereal dissonant drone while Traoré sings the song of a poor man, grateful for his beautiful wife and sorrowful because of the suffering that poverty has imposed upon them. Her voice is profoundly distressing, conveying a sense of aching sorrow evident even without reading the translated lyrics. On the more traditional sounding tunes, Traoré builds melodies on simple, repeating circular riffs, accented by acoustic instruments with balafon (wooden xylophone), kora (lute), and ngoni, a three-stringed bass/guitar with a dry, percussive sound dominating the mix. "Sara" opens with Traoré's voice and ngoni trading phrases, then builds slowly with the addition of percussion, electric bass, and a choir of multitracked Traorés adding harmonies, while "Kanou" is a slow lilting tune that rides a subtle, reggae-like rhythm.
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