Album Review: Rokia Koné & Jacknife Lee – BAMANAN [Real World Records; February 2022]

The roses go to Rokia…

New on Real World Records and fresh from a coveted Songlines cover, Mali’s Rokia Koné, nicknamed “The Rose of Bamako”, blesses us with BAMANAN, which has been out since February 18th, and is a collaboration realised remotely with Irish super producer Jacknife Lee

Already a star in Mali and increasingly known internationally via her work with Les Amazones d’AfriqueBAMANAN is Koné’s debut long-player and a homage to the Bamanakan speaking peoples of West Africa, to the Mali of yesterday, and the Mali of tomorrow. Ten songs in all, the album took shape over the pandemic with Koné and Lee never meeting, something they plan to put right when they play Banlieues Bleues Festival later this month.

Instead Koné generously gave Lee licence to interpret her music in the Los Angeles studio where he has produced music for REM, U2 and Taylor Swift, among others. A gamble? Surely, but for the most part it works and the album starts strongly and serenely with ‘Bi Ye Tulonba Ye’ (today is a great party) a slowly building anthem on which Rokia reaches out to her fellow Malians at home and in the diaspora with a call for unity. Featuring lush synth pads from Lee and the slinky guitar of Rokia’s regular guitarist Salif Koné (no relation), ‘Bi Ye Tulonba Ye’ showcases the control, vibrato, and tone of Rokia Koné’s voice, which is ultimately the instrument that carries the album.

Picking up the tempo with ‘Shezita’ (Take a seat) Lee layers Rokia’s vocal takes (recorded in 2018 and 2020) over various gated drums and low pass filter synths for a funky workout featuring more of Salif Koné’s wassoulou style guitar. As such it’s one of the tunes on the album to treat Rokia’s voice as a sample and assemble something around it, rather than to take a seat, as it were.

When this does happen, as on ‘N’yanyan’, the results are golden. An ancient folkloric tune recorded in one single take in Bamako on 18 August 2020 the same night of the coup d’état that marked the beginning of a new period of instability for Mali, Koné delivers an emotive performance of pure grace accompanied just by electric piano, as she promises that all shall pass and everything comes to end. 

BAMANAN itself concludes with ‘Mansa Soyari’ba reworking of a song that the regal Rokia originally brought to Les Amazones d’Afrique. Allowing Rokia’s voice to have a conversation with a kamelé n’goni harp (the acoustic instruments on the album were mostly recorded in Bamako in 2020) it’s a glimpse closer to what Rokia likely sounds like when she plays at the sumu street parties of Bamako with her own band.

As the great Quincy Delight Jones has often (and more colourfully) put it, “If you don’t have a great song, it doesn’t matter what else you put around it”, and Jacknife Lee certainly had great material to work with at his board. One just wonders what these songs might have sounded like orchestrated by Rokia’s own band, and perhaps BAMANAN could have then been remixed by Lee in the same way that Oumou Sangaré and Salif Keita allowed with Mogoya and Moffou respectively.

A record that rewards you with more listens, BAMANAN is nonetheless a decent debut and the roses go to Rokia Koné and her incredible voice.

You can listen to and buy your copy of BAMANAN following this LINK. While HERE, you can read our Q&A with Rokia Koné