Rokia Traore is a folk singer in the same way that Paul Simon is a folk singer. Traore's brilliant third album, "Bowmboi," is dominated by acoustic instruments and is built upon musical traditions that would have been familiar to her great-grandparents in Mali. But the singer transforms those source materials as thoroughly as Simon might; she surrounds her melodies with odd, moody harmonies and infuses her lyrics with irony and nuance. This is a very different kind of African album. The rhythms are more often implied than stated; the arrangements are sparse; and the vocals possess the quiet intimacy of private conversations.
Though Traore sings exclusively in her native language of Bamanan, the English translations in the CD booklet reveal her ambition. "Deli," for example, begins with a typical West African lyric praising "ties of friendship, ties of intimacy," but it quickly takes a left turn by admitting, "I fear ties; ties are infinite and complex." Over a repeating two-note guitar figure, the sound of pouring water and the rippling of the n'goni lute, Traore's multi-tracked voices argue amongst themselves: Are the rewards of relationships worth the sacrifices?
On "Manian," backed by the pulsing rhythms of the Kronos String Quartet, Traore asks why some children are chosen to have their hands dried by rich parents while others are left to wander the streets with damp fingers. On "Sara," over the springy bounce of hand drummers, she wonders why so many great artists are such poor human beings. On the gentle ballad "Kele Mandi," she asks why lovers from two cultures -- or the two cultures themselves -- can't meet without one dominating the other. These are the modernist questions of a diplomat's middle-class daughter, and few songwriters on any continent have handled them as well.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Monday at the Birchmere. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Rokia Traore, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8108. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)