Founded way back in 1967, Brighton Festival is now entering its 53rd year, an incredible achievement that has immeasurably helped to put Brighton on the map, as a centre for the arts, and artistic innovation and excellence.
One recent development has been the inviting of artistic Guest Directors to head up the festival, which Andrew Comben has been in overall charge of since 2008. It’s an idea that came to fruition in 2009 when internationally-acclaimed sculptor Anish Kapoor accepted the invitation. Since then, there has been a star-studded line-up of artists from across the board, including musicians Brian Eno (2010), Laurie Anderson (2016), and Kate Tempest (2017). For this year’s festival, Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traoré is the artistic Guest Director, helping to not only shape and immerse herself in the festival, but also to perform.
Considering herself to be an “Afro-progressive”, Traoré has made six albums, drawing on her Malian roots, but also incorporating sounds from around the globe. Bowmboï (2003) won the Critics Award category at the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music in 2004, and Tchamantché (2008) won Victoires de la Musique World Music Album of the Year in 2009. Traoré also won Best Artist in the Songlines Music Awards in 2009.
As a child she, along with her six siblings, went to live with her diplomatic father, when he was posted abroad. Through him (he used to be a sax player), she discovered jazz, blues and French chanson as well as different styles of African music, while one of her older brothers introduced her to Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. The family lived in the Middle East, north Africa and in Belgium, but would consistently return home. After studying sociology in Brussels, Traoré moved back to Bamako, the Malian capital. “I studied social studies, but I left in my third year. I had to go back to Mali. Sometimes I think of finishing my studies, but I am so busy with interesting things, I don’t know! The life of everyday is probably the biggest and hardest school; there are always many interesting things to learn!”
She was initially discouraged from becoming a singer, not so much because she wasn’t born into the class of griot storytellers who have for centuries been the guardians of Mali’s musical traditions, but because amongst her parents’ circle, it seemed scandalous to forfeit the benefits of a western education in this way. The patronage of the late guitarist Ali Farka Touré inspired her, though. “I told him I really liked all sorts of music, and he told me ‘don’t try and play like other people’. He, like me, was a self-learner. He said, ‘You’re on your own path now, so just carry on – it will be your way of playing’.”
Perhaps more than any African nation other than South Africa, Mali has produced an incredible number of high profile musicians of international standing: Salif Keita, Toumani Diamante, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré, Afel Bocoum, Tinariwen, Songhoy Blues, Tamikrest, Amadou & Mariam, to name but a few. What is it about Mali, a country that has been suffering conflict for the last few years as the Government, with French support, battles with Tuareg separatists and Islamic fundamentalists? At one point, parts of Mali were forbidden to play music as Islamic extremists temporarily took a hold. “In Mali we really have different styles of music according to the ethnic group. And the instruments which define the musical colour are also specific to ethnic groups in general. In the past, oral tradition was preserved through the music. It was about real things, and really important education matters, that was spread through music. I think that’s the reason now we have all this diversity. Although there may not be so many that you know, that write new music. Most of them take ‘classical’ and change them in another way. But in Mali there were so many different kingdoms, and empires, it makes that country an interesting one.”
Is there a problem with cultural appropriation, I ask her. Say, when western artists and storytellers perform songs and tell stories from cultures they know little about? “The problem is not about the fact you tell other people’s stories. There can be a problem if you tell it the wrong way. It’s not yours. Even for me. It’s very important that I check the meaning. Songs are not just songs in Mali. It’s really regrettable that people in our country just cover our songs, and put them under their own name, in terms of rights. It’s not about the money, it’s about the fact you are lying. It’s like an archaeological element you took from the environment; you no longer know what the history is. You cannot change lyrics in classical songs, because it will get us far from the original version, and by the end we will no longer know what the original version is. If you do change it, you should provide the information about what you added. It was about their history, and their way of doing things, what was good to do, or bad to do. All the old stories were about doing that. But we have to tell these stories to make these cultures known.”
PJ Harvey’s long time collaborator and producer, John Parrish, produced her 2013 album Beautiful Africa, an album that moves away from the acoustic and blues influences that infuse her previous work. It was a work that partly addressed her ongoing immersion in discovering her Malian musical identity, as well as the political turmoil in Mali, and surrounding countries. “I continue to be realistic, but optimistic. I know how fragile things are in Africa, but there are so many opportunities. I keep trusting in Africa and Africans, and I am very hopeful.” Parrish also produced her latest album, Né So. Both albums have that distinctively African sound thanks to the use of the n’goni, as well as western influences. “The idea of working with him came to me because I wanted to collaborate with someone who could bring me what I couldn’t, in terms of rock’n’roll, because it’s not my culture at all. And I didn’t have to worry about preserving what I did. John is firstly a great artist, and a good person, and also he’s a great human person.”
With her high standing globally, both for her music and her participatory work in fostering diversity through artistic collaborations, she got the call, to see whether or not she would be interested in being Brighton Festival’s Guest Director for 2019. “I had a message asking me if I wanted to be part of such an experience. I wondered if I would have enough time to be involved, because you are part of it, for all the preparation. For me, you have to be there. So, I wanted to make sure I had enough time to be able to involve myself as much as I would like. It’s a very interesting festival, which I knew about before. It seemed like a great opportunity.”
Traoré says she will be back and forth between her home in Mali, and Brighton, but as well as performing, she is expecting to immerse herself in the Brighton Festival experience, catching a show or two. “There are some very interesting things. I would like to see such as Flight, and it’s been a long time since I have seen Neneh Cherry.”
As part of the launch, Traoré treated us (just an audience of about 50) to three songs, stripped bare, just her and a guitar; ‘Lalla’ (from Beautiful Africa), as well as ‘Koulandjan’, and ‘Kèlè Mandi’. “Two of them are old songs from previous albums, and ‘Koulandjan’ is a classical Mandinka song (one of the many ethnic groups that inhabit Mali). More than a traditional song, it’s a ‘classical’. It’s sung in Bambara (her native language). It’s about hunters. It’s about the principle of hunting, not just the fact of killing a wild animal. It’s about taking from nature what you need to stay alive. All good kings were also great hunters, and understanding the relationships between human beings and nature, before you would be able to manage the whole country, or kingdom, or empire. The griot solution is the base of our culture, and the art of hunting is the base of this tradition.”
Traoré will be performing three times as part of this year’s festival, as well as giving a talk with her very close friend and collaborator Peter Sellars, at The Old Market, 24th May. Dream Mandé: Djata is centred around oral history, using wordsmiths and musicians (using traditional stringed instruments such as the kora, the n’goni and a djéli) in the Mandinka tradition. This melds together traditional griot structures with Traoré’s own narrative, to tell the age-old epic of Mandinka civilisation, using parts of the legend of Soundiata Keïta, the powerful founding father to the Malian empire. She’ll also be opening the festival programme with Né So (the word for ‘home’ in Bambara), the name of her last album, where she explores home as a place of rootedness from which her creative curiosity can take flight, a place of collaboration through like minded musicians, and a place of reunion of artists she admires across West Africa and further afield.
A decade ago, Rokia Traoré started the Foundation Passerelle in Bamako to guard, inspire and create a platform for young Malian artists, with a long term view of developing their creative output and investing back into the Malian culture from which her work springs. Part of that process has been the fusion of influences and an interplay between the traditional and the contemporary. It’s this work and her experiences of collaboration that informs her guiding philosophy, that is perfectly matched with the Brighton Festival. “There are so many artists in the foundation. It is hard as we can’t bring everyone, but it is fantastic as we have so many projects that we can showcase our culture aboard.” Acts including Ko Saba, a six-strong collective that combines three music styles from Malia, and photographer King Massassy. “He shows a humanity through his pictures to people who may never have seen that side before.” His show, Iron Men, showcases the city of Bamako’s iron workers and the exhibition runs throughout the whole festival at Phoenix Gallery. Traoré will also be appearing as part of Dream Mandé: Bamanan Djourou, a musical show that has roots in the cross-fertilisation of African and western music traditions and which will feature young Malian artists form the Foundation Passerelle. Created around the kora, ngoni, calabash, and cajon – as well as the acoustic bass, guitar, and six female singers, including Traoré – the performance aims to deliver adaptations of traditional Bambara songs, popular French (Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré, Barbara), and international (Fela, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba) songs. “What we are all here trying to do is make diversity and shared space a normal thing for the community. As artists, we see things in a different way. We try and show a vision of the world, and promoters and venues and festivals give us the opportunity to bring our works to an audience, some of who are artists. And there is the media supporting us, helping us to spread this information. And then there is the audience who are part of this construction, to help us understand this diversity and differences. We are trying to show our vision of the world. We want to show how big the world is and the importance of diversity.”