It was a full house at the Rose Theater this past Friday where award-winning, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Rokia Traoré, was part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.Dressed in a little black dress and some funky platform boots, the petite singer looked like an elegant rockstar as she picked up her guitar, and quietly approached the microphone. Traoré started the show off with “Dounia” from her earlier album Tchamantché, before proceeding with material from her latest album Beautiful Africa. Traoré’s voice is deep and gentle, but yet intense and powerful such that she commands the attention of every ear in the room. The theater was dead silent as she sang in Bambara, creating Malian melodies with the accompanying guitars and bass.
The second song “Yandé” was a blend of rock and funk, with the traditional flair of the n’goni adding harmonious rhythm alongside the guitars. The beautiful sound of the n’goni was especially clear in the next song “Lalla”. Alternating between fast and slow paces, the inflection in Traoré’s voice travelled across the still room. With a smile on her face, she sang “Ka Moun Ke” a lovely ballad that allowed Traoré’s voice to flow harmoniously between the string instruments and the light beat of the drum.
During “Melancolié" Traoré took on a theatrical edge, her toned limbs weaved from side to side in dance as she shared her message. Listening to her sweet voice tremble, it was clear why Traoré is listed among the most inventive singer-songwriters in Africa today. She blends cultural melodies, personal inspiration, and western genres, to create music that is in a class of its own. Mixing French and Bambara, Traoré picked up the pace with “Zen”. In this song she engaged the audience with a more conversational tone, almost as if she was reciting poetry. Encouraged by her energetic dance moves, members of the shy audience slowly but surely stood up to dance.
“Sikey” another fast-slow paced song was followed by the album title track “Beautiful Africa” and “Kouma”, both of which featured some very passionate growling in the singer’s voice. Traoré managed to create this fantastic blend where psychedelic rock and the smooth but sharp melodies of the n’goni meshed beautifully. This was only further accented by the Bambara lyrics. Ending the night with the upbeat “Tuit Tuit”, Traoré sang her heart out while her charming backup singers danced in unison. As she introduced the amazing members of her band, Traoré entertained the audience with some scat singing before she danced off the stage.
The audience may have been a little shy, but the considerably long call for an encore was proof of Traoré’s spectacular performance. Cajoled back on stage by the insistent audience, Traoré performed a wonderful rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday”. While it was a different tone from the upbeat rock infused songs of Beautiful Africa, it was a great way to slow down the pace and show the audience the amazing and versatile musician that Rokia Traoré truly is.