Tuesday 11 May 2010

Rokia Traore, Sweet Billy Pilgrim

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Wednesday 5 May 2010 

The tall, handsome African man was speaking into his mobile phone as he left Bridgewater Hall. "I've just been to see Rokia Traore," he said. "She's the new Bob Marley." 

The statement wasn't fanciful. From the incantatory, Dianfra on, Traore held the audience spellbound. She has an extraordinary presence: a beautiful woman made grave by the weight of memory. Her persona is quintessentially Mali yet her internationalist outlook is reflected in the band. A French trio - guitarist Seb Martel, bassist Christophe 'Disco' Minck and drummer Vincent Taeger - capably blend rock and desert blues. 

The Mali contingent - Sibiri Kone on n'goni and backing singer Dianke Termessant - joined for the second song, Aimer. A Miriam Makeba song, Quit It, is scornful and sensual. Now the tempo and energy-levels are intensified. The stage was invaded by a frenzied dancer, but Rokia, without missing a whoop, matched him step for step. Bob Marley, yes, and Makeba too, but Traore most reminds of PJ Harvey, albeit with ancestor worship instead of big sex. 

A tumultuous encore lasted a third as long as the show, combining Fela Kuti's African Lady with a medley of originals. As Traore's ululations approached a new, inscrutable variety of scat-singing, it seemed as if her energy was inexhaustible. When she temporarily left the stage and Martel essayed some trippy guitar licks, it occurred that the Sahara is not only the home of the blues but the home of funk, and that Jimi Hendrix was the ultimate African avatar. Yes, it was that good. The music followed the pattern of an African wake, beginning with sorrow and moving up to exaltation. Life's energies were rousingly, triumphantly, affirmed.  

It was touching and very brave of Sweet Billy Pilgrim to attempt a mood of sustained, precious melancholia in the opening slot.

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