AFRICAN GUITARISTS TEND TO WORK WITH THE INSTRUMENTS AND GEAR THEY FIND at hand. Their sounds rely more often on technique and sensibility than on vintage axes or technology. But when Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore began planning her fourth album, she had a particular guitar tone in her head: Warm and round, electric but not too percussive—a sound recalled from the blues and rock and roll records she loved during her wandering youth. Traore’s eureka moment came in a specialty music store in Amiens, France, when she got her hands on a 1967 Gretsch Country Gentleman.
Traore had established her international career with a mellifluous voice and an ensemble that featured not her guitar playing, but rather the contrasting sonorities of a deep-toned, wooden xylophone and the high-pitched melodies of traditional ngonis [lutes]. But, with that Gretsch in hand, she was determined to create an ensemble centered on the coveted guitar sound that had been eluding her.
“I touched it, and with the first note I understood it was what I wanted,” says Traore. “Everything started from the sound of this guitar. I composed all the new songs with it.”
The resulting album, Tchamantché [Nonesuch], comes two decades after Traore’s diplomat father presented her with her very first guitar—a small, Yamaha acoustic purchased in New York City. Traore had lived in Europe and the Middle East by then, and been exposed to a wide variety of music. Her favorites included Hendrix, Santana, and Tracy Chapman—who she says was a crucial model for a whole generation of guitar-toting female musicians in Africa. Traore learned guitar from books and on her own, and, like many other Malian guitarists, she focused more on melody and rhythm than on chords.
“Even now, I’m not a chord person,” she says. “You can hear that in my music. It’s a question of feeling.”
At the same time, she was never schooled in any of Mali’s famous traditional guitar styles, which rely on elaborate picking—as well as hammer-on and pull-off techniques— that mimics the sounds of local instruments. But, like those guitarists, Traore gravitated towards a fingerstyle approach.
“I never use a pick,” she says. “I need to feel the strings.”
Traore uses her thumb and two fingers to pick, and she favors arpeggiated accompaniments, rather than the thumb-and-index-finger picking style and the ornamented, rhythmic melodies typical among Malian fingerstyle pros. On her first three albums, Traore’s guitar accompaniments became increasingly understated. On Tchamantché, she pares the ensemble back radically, allowing the spare sensibility of her guitar playing room to breathe. The album’s haunting opener, “Dounia,” works around her voice and a low, cycling melody on the Gretsch, building the mood for nearly three minutes before introducing a second guitar, an ngoni, and some light percussion. Near the end of the song, she takes an elegant, blues-tinged solo, briefly harmonized by the second guitar. The mix becomes quite dense by the close, but its power lies more in tasteful arranging and orchestration than in any sort of technical virtuosity.
Tchamantché is the first album Traore has recorded completely in Europe. For the session, she also played a Silvertone 1448, and she used a ’63 Vox AC15 and a ’65 Bird Golden Eagle—amplifiers that would never be found in Mali. The album’s title translates roughly as “equilibrium,” and it goes to the heart of Traore’s appeal—her ability to bridge and balance African and Western sensibilities.
Tchamantché includes a sultry cover of Billie Holiday’s “The Man I Love,” a number of minimalist ballads sung in Traore’s native Bambara, and a handful of uptempo songs—such as the driving “Tounka,” with its open, jazz-inspired tonality and growling, bluesy vocal. With focus and brilliance, Traore doesn’t try to compete with the dazzling chops of hotshot African guitarists, but she delivers a sense of style and sound craft that is unique on the contemporary scene.
“My problem in African music or Malian music is also my advantage,” she explains. “I didn’t go to the traditional school. I didn’t learn guitar like Djelimady Tounkara, for example. And, in terms of singing, I am not Salif Keita or Oumou Sangaré. At the same time, that’s a kind of advantage for me. I know enough about Malian music to use it in my own way, and I know enough about Western music to use it in my own way.”