Rokia Koné’s distinctive voice is instantly recognizable in Mali, well beyond her home town of Bamako where she has captivated audiences for years in the city’s local maquis clubs with her lengthy performances. In BAMANAN, Konés debut solo album set for release this February, the great ancient sounds of Mali and the modern soundscape of its capital Bamako beautifully converge. Filtered through Irish-born rock producer Jacknife Lee’s California studio, the results are a delight for the ears.
Koné’s musical journey began in the courtyard of her home in Dioro near Ségou, the cradle of the great Bamana Empire. She would mostly sing her grandmother’s songs. “My uncles and aunts on both sides of my family were also singers. I was always surrounded by music.” Young Rokia headed to Bamako and backed one of Mali’s biggest stars, Alia Coulibaly, before quickly rising as a solo artist and distinctive performer in her own right.
In 2016, Koné caught the attention of Valérie Malot, founder of renowned French booking agency 3D Family. Malot invited her to join Les Amazones d’Afrique, marking her debut on European stages. They collaborated on several songs for the band’s first album, sparking a close creative relationship between the band, but also with Koné who was looking to record a solo project.
A long time in the making, BAMANAN is ultimately a tribute to the Bambara of southern Mali. Koné is inspired by griots, the hereditary praise singers vital to the fabric of Malian society: “It is the role of the griot to perpetuate the tradition,” says Koné. “To remind us of our origins, our culture.” This homage is palpable in three songs—Anw Tile, Bambougou N’tji and ‘Soyi N’galanba – that are an ode to the great kings of Segou’s past. In Mansa Soyari, Koné replaces the heroes of Mali’s history with heroines, including singers Ramata Diakité and Fanta Damba who have inspired women, including Rokia herself, through their music,
Mayougouba continues in this vein, but moves to the dancefloor, rallying women and girls: “Move, dance, You’re perfect as you are”. Shezita, Kurunba and Dunden warn of close enemies, encouraging resilience in the face of adversity. Elsewhere, Koné slips into the classic griot role, channelling advice and wisdom into the song ‘Bi Ye Tulonba Ye’. “The situation in Mali is very difficult right now. But other countries have their conflict too. The message of this song calls for us to end to all wars and disputes and come together for a great party.”
The album’s melancholic apex is undoubtedly in N’yanyan, where Koné’s voice takes center stage, accompanied solely by electric piano. Koné delivers a profoundly urgent vocal performance in a single take. Save for Mayougouba, and Shezita, where the occasionally incongruous arrangements evoke a collision of vastly different sonic registers (and Kurunba which features very unoriginal African drumming) Lee upholds the stark beauty of Rokia’s voice with subtlety and sensitivity. BANAMAN is a striking debut from an extraordinary performer. One of Bamako’s best kept secrets has finally been revealed!
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