Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore has a voice that is dramatic and entrancing -- and yet that's only part of what makes her fourth release, "Tchamantche," so compelling. The album's real allure is its blend of traditional and contemporary elements, which isn't surprising given the diversity of Traore's background.
The daughter of a diplomat, Traore was raised on three continents before returning to Mali. Much of her music sounds like African folk songs played with contemporary arrangements; particularly stunning are the trancelike "Dianfa" and the staccato guitar plucking on the title track, which turns her voice into a supporting instrument.
Most of "Tchamantche" is sung in Bambara and French, with one notable exception, a cover of the Gershwins' "The Man I Love." Traore's take is similar to Billie Holiday's famous version (it has the same jazz phrasings), but Traore gives it an even more prolonged pace, accentuated further by her thick accent and the trippy scatting that closes the song.
--Catherine P. Lewis, Weekend (Feb. 2009)