One might expect a bigger, louder, brassier woman to be the one who breaks down gender barriers in Mali, West Africa. Surely a description of such a person wouldn’t include words such as petite, gentle, delicate, and respectful, would it? If you’re ever fortunate enough to meet Rokia Traoré, singing sensation with an eight-piece band to back her up, you’ll find in her one of the kindest, strongest souls ever.
Born into the Bamana ethnic group, which maintains the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in much of Mali, Traoré grew up one of seven children. Her father worked as a diplomat bringing his family with him through many postings including the USA, the Middle East and Europe.
This worldly exposure perhaps influenced Traoré with ideas of gender equality or opened her eyes to the disparity between sexes in her own country. However the concept of feminism came about, Traoré found herself in a bit of a conundrum. While her ethnic group did not impose the same strict restrictions on public singing as other groups, she was still challenged with finding musicians to work with her on her music.
At the age of 22, Traoré decided to become a professional singer. “In the beginning it was really hard because the musicians didn’t want to work with me. In Africa there are not many women composers. In Senegal and other places such as Mali there are not any women composers. I think I was the first and playing an instrument and they didn’t like it, didn’t want to work with me” says Traoré.
Traoré won the Radio France Internationale Prize as “African discovery of the year” in 1997; still she found reluctance from other male musicians in West Africa to accept her as a legitimate artist. “When you’re a woman in entertainment, you have to show them that you are able. And I didn’t think I had to, I just wanted to do something…and thinking about all the negative things–what people are thinking—becomes defeating as you are trying to get where you want.”
Traoré persevered, finding artists who played traditional Mali instruments such as n’goni and calabash as well as non-traditional electric guitar and were willing to hang in there with her. Traoré herself plays acoustic guitar. “Some leave the band, some come back…generally, I’ve worked with every one in my current band since 1998.
“I know they have to respect me as a human because I respect them. I think the idea of working with a woman is clear to them because I’m not a threat. There’s no problem because I understand the culture and know what it’s like. I just have to get what I want to get and one day there will be many places for women in music.”
While the endurance to tackle sexism in Mali might seem daunting, Traoré credits her parents with providing her with the tools to solve the situation. “We turn to education. In my family, we have five girls and two boys. The daughters were educated the same as their brothers. For my parents it was important for them to send everybody to school. And it was important that we all attained our goals and that we lived alone, not dependent on anyone else. They never hurried us to get married or never asked us, because we are 30, ‘when will you get married?’ This was not like many other parents. My parents are very special and they are coming from a very special attitude. It’s not common in Mali.”
Traoré’s third album, released this year under the Nonesuch label, Bowmboï, includes many numbers advocating the respectful treatment of women and children. But far from being a rageful album about the mistreatment of the past, it emphasizes the beautiful ways we can all treat one another. Filled with love songs and songs of peace, Bowmboï is an emulsion of traditional and modern ideas as well as sound.
Reflecting on her tour schedule as she promotes her latest album, Traoré says, “It’s hard, of course, as is any job. What’s important is to love your job. This is a fantastic job. We are like a family because we love each other.”