Rokia Traore's family was both a blessing and a curse for her musical career. Her father was a diplomat and she spent her childhood travelling over several continents, to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, and France. There she was exposed to a variety of styles of music, from classical, jazz, and pop to Indian traditional composition. However, her family was also part of Mali's nobility, which has traditional caste prohibitions against their members making music. For her countryman Salif Keita, who was a member of the Manding people, it was an almost insurmountable burden. For Traore, though, the prohibitions were not as strict. The Bamana ethic group did have a musical tradition of their own, especially among women, with performers called griottes travelling to perform at weddings and gatherings.
Traore's musical style, however, has little in common with the griottes. Unlike their signature wailing sound, her voice is smooth and gentle, and her arrangements, while somewhat minimalist, make use of both traditional instruments like the balafon, n'goni, and kora, as well as acoustic guitar and electric bass. That sound is evident on her debut release, Mouneissa, from 1998, but most evident on her 2000 release, Wanita. For Wanita, Traore wrote and arranged the entire album, seizing the controls from a male engineer who believed that a young girl was incapable of handling the production of an album. The result shows a deeply personal and individual style which reflects both innovation and tradition.
She followed the set with Bowmboï in 2003, for Nonesuch which was co-produced by Judith Sherman and Thomas Weill; she handled all the band's arrangements. For 2008's Tchamantché, she recorded for UNI Jazz in Europe. After a five year recording break, Traore surprised fans by releasing her first rock record--she is a longtime admirer of Dire Straits--Beautiful Africa. Produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey), it was released in April of 2013. ~ Stacia Proefrock