Rokia Traore | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Most of the Malian music we get to hear in this country bears Western trappings--the drum machines in Issa Bagayogo's songs, for example, or the funk bass that undergirds Oumou Sangare's circular grooves. Rokia Traore's three remarkable albums are no exception, but their subtlety and almost spartan restraint makes their departures from tradition sound radical. On the new Bowmboi (Nonesuch) the gorgeous, intimate arrangements suit her delicate singing perfectly: rather than use the customary call-and-response chants of Malian music, she overdubs layers of her own voice to create precise, radiant harmonies, and her gauzy acoustic guitar is rarely accompanied by much more than twangy n'goni and skeletal percussion. Her ingenious songs sometimes create phantom sounds in their open spaces: the tune "M'Bifo" has no bass or drums, but a single resonant low note repeated on her guitar combines with the brittle, twirling n'goni licks to gently suggest where the rhythm section would go. When she does add bass lines, not even the most ferocious rhythms overwhelm the fragile, hypnotic sounds of the stringed instruments--and her soulful voice, with its fluttering, birdlike vibrato, stays the center of attention no matter what. Traore is sublimely magnetic onstage as well, a serpentine, sensual dancer with a presence that's equally inviting and intense. Friday 8, 8 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000, $22, $18 for seniors and kids. All ages. See also Saturday. At 7:30 PM on Sunday, October 10, filmmaker Laurens Grant will screen a documentary in progress on Traore at a benefit for the film at HotHouse; call 312-362-9707 for tickets or information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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