Rokia Traore | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Rokia Traore has always sounded incredibly diminutive alongside most of her fellow Malians, whether Ali Farka Toure with his bluesy circular grooves or Salif Keita with his sophisticated polyrhythmic pop. At her Chicago debut last year she was a study in restraint: as her mostly acoustic band simmered quietly, her gentle warble was defined by subtle shadings, yet the power she held in reserve was evident when she let loose one of her deeply soulful melismatic cries. With her masterful pacing and tight control, she could conjure up the intimacy of a coffeehouse or the vibrancy of a dance club. She'd come to town to promote her second album, Wanita (Indigo), and now her first, Mouneissa (1998), has just been released in the U.S. Recorded when she was only 24, it seems a bit fragile compared to its follow-up, yet it's still beautiful, its fascinating instrumental fusion making harmonic space for both the dry, twangy n'goni (lute) and the liquid balafon (xylophone), a combination rarely heard in Mali. Her melodies may borrow from the country's female-dominated Wassoulou tradition, but instead of the hypnotic call-and-response vocals common to Malian music, Traore reaches toward the West with gorgeous harmony. She's due for a new album soon, and with luck she'll showcase some new material at this performance. Wednesday, August 15, 8 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.

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