The Malian singer Rokia Koné is known as the Rose of Bamako. In a country known for world class instrumentation and great female vocalists, mainly through recordings and performances from luminaries such as Oumou Sangaré and Fatoumata Diawara, Koné has emerged as one of the most innovative, experimental African singers on the international music scene. She used to perform in local Bamako bars, known as “maquis,” riffing off her grandmother’s songs, before she became known for her own soulful repertoire.
Having risen to fame as a member of the feminist group Les Amazones d’Afrique, Koné has long been a campaigner for gender equality. An activist at heart, she has fought for justice, and created a musical style that is based on catchy melodic chants. She says that, growing up, she was always surrounded by music, and by musicians. She performs her latest single, N’yanyan, in her native Bambara language, and the song is a prelude to her forthcoming album, Bamanan, which is a collaboration with Irish-born, California-based producer Jacknife Lee.
Lee is the acclaimed producer of bands including U2, R.E.M and The Killers, and has earned Grammy recognition for his work on Taylor Swift’s multi-million selling Red. Stadium-sized soundscapes are his specialty. Yet Bamanan finds Lee upholding the stark beauty of Rokia’s voice with subtlety and sensitivity. Every nuance and breath is heard, each inflection and melismatic improvisation carefully preserved.
The vocals on N’yanyan were recorded in Bamako on August 18, 2020, the night of a coup that marked the beginning of yet another period of instability for Mali, a country that is now known for terrorist attacks, reprisal killings, and endless military operations. The music video for N’yanyan was directed by Senegalese filmmaker Joseph Gaï Ramaka, at his home on the island of Gorée in Senegal.
Another song from the new album is Kurunba. It is a powerful example of resistance and denouncing the customs of exclusion faced by women when they have finished raising their husband’s children. In some patriarchal societies, once her children are married, the wife’s role in the family is diminished and often results in the arrival of a co-wife. If she rebels against this, she could be branded as ‘mad’ and isolated from society. The music video for that song was directed by Zambian choreographer and dancer Kennedy Junior Muntanga.
“Kurunba tells the story of a particular woman who was freed from her isolation,” says Koné. “On the day of her daughter’s wedding she sang this song, and the same people who had tried to lock her up were transformed into dogs and flies. It’s like a curse.” In this pandemic age where many people are searching for more meaning in their lives and endeavors, this album feels like a set of uplifting, deeply rooted compositions that can be described as both ancestral and modern. Kone’s new songs, which are being released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, are basically just right for today’s new times.