Interview: Q&A with Rokia Koné – A Blossoming African Music Rose (April 2022)

We are usually a bit sceptical at first when we read about a new African music diva in the making… Many artists have been (willingly or not) conferred that title in recent years, but only a “chosen few” have lived up to the expectations. 

That’s why whenever we have the pleasure and honour to encounter and listen to one of those rare musicians, we can’t help but get in line to jump on their bandwagon.

Despite being aware of the talent of Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Kone since 2016, thanks to her participation in the all-female, all-star band Les Amazones d’Afrique, it was quite a revelation when we first listened to “Kurumba”, the first single extracted from her debut album BAMANAN.

The tune which, as well as the LP, enjoys the magic touch of Irish producer Jacknife Lee, is indeed an uplifting and impassioned song amplifying Rokia’s thoroughly empowering message and stand for women’s rights.

Both “Kurumba” and BAMANAN, which was released on the 18th of February by Real World Records, have helped the “Rose of Bamako” to carve out a well-lit niche in the world music scene, swiftly rising into becoming one of the most inspiring and articulated West African artists.

So, no better timing to get in touch with her and have a virtual chat focussed on her new album, career and Mali.

Bamanan was officially released only a few weeks ago… How do you feel about it and how would you introduce it?

BAMANAN is named for the Bamana people and our music. I would say that this is a good introduction to our music, and I hope that it can make a wider audience interested in my music and present new opportunities. I am proud of the album, and whilst there is nothing I would do differently, I will admit to being a little bit nervous and unsure when I first heard the sounds that Jacknife Lee brought to it. It’s very different to what we are used to hearing in Mali, but with a little time I really grew to love what he had done. Now, people in Mali are even asking me to perform these songs as they sound on the album, which is a really good sign.

How was it to work with an experienced and skilled producer like Jacknife Lee? As well as influencing the album, has he also influenced your musical perspective?

I liked the collaboration very much, because it allowed me to understand certain things in music that I didn’t know before. It was very interesting particularly to hear his approach to the keyboard sounds. I think it was very important for me to work with Jacknife Lee, because it gave me the chance to develop the Bambara music and give it a wider appeal beyond Mali.

I read that the way you wrote and recorded the album was quite a “global” process with music travelling back and forth between Bamako and California. Can you tell us a bit more about the creative process behind the publication of Bamanan?

We’ve actually never met, which may be surprising to some. I made my sounds here in Mali and sent them off. He listened to my music and asked my record company if we could collaborate. We worked together, but remotely. Most of the album’s vocals and live instrument parts were recorded before Jacknife came on board to produce it. We provided him with the recordings and he began to experiment with what was already created and add his own elements and also brought new and radical ideas about the song arrangements. Therefore, we were not in communication at this stage of the process. He would send an idea through to me and my team, and in each we just loved what he had done. We allowed him the same creative freedom that I had when I recorded live in the studio.

These are songs that I had written and already perform regularly at my concerts in Mali. We recorded them live in a studio in Bamako with my band who perform with me several nights a week in the city’s music venues. However, they sound very different on this album, because of the new palette of colours that Jacknife Lee brings to my music — new electronic sounds and grooves.

Not only are you called “The Rose of Bamako”, but your city and its culture are also the main influences behind your music. What can you tell us about the music scene in Bamako? Are there any new musicians or bands you’d like to suggest that we listen to?

There are very many great musicians in Mali, but I do not wish to single out any in particular. I do however like to credit Aliya Coulibaliy, who was my mentor early in my career, and who taught me a lot about live performance and stagecraft when I was a backing vocalist in his band. I also encourage the younger generation in Mali to listen to and learn from the music of the great older singers such as Amy Koïta and Molobali Traoré.

I also read that you wrote ‘N’yanyan’, one of the songs included in the album, on the night of the 2020’s coup d’etat in Mali. How much is the current situation in Mali affecting your music and inspiring your songwriting?

I mean, like many Malians I obviously felt a bit worried when the first coup took place that night. Some might even have felt scared at the time, because Mali is unlike most African countries — and things can change dramatically. But at the end we find our own ways of dealing with it. So, like many Malians on that day, yes, I was worried. But honestly, it is very difficult to understand what is going on in Mali at the moment, even for us who live there. I prefer not to talk about politics because I am not involved in this in any way.

As it happens with ‘N’yanyan’, some of your songs are inspired by the Bambara traditional repertoire. What’s your relationship with your heritage and how do you find a balance when blending traditional sounds with more contemporary ones? 

I learned the Bambara repertoire from my grandmothers. I grew up in the Segoú region, which is where the kingdom of Bamana was founded. Some people mistake me for a griot / hereditary singer, however I am Koné — a Bambara and a noble. But the griots have a very important role in our society. They are the ones who have preserved the history and culture through the generations, which tell us about who we are and where we’ve come from. This is why I and many other singers continue to perform these songs today.

Your songs also have a deep and straightforward drive towards the empowerment of women, promoting gender equality and women’s rights. I’m thinking about ‘Kurunba’ in particular, but there are quite a few other examples. Do you feel music is still having an impact on people?

Yes, I think that songs which speak to women are very important in society. In Mali, people really listen to the words of the singers, and that is why we focus on the most important themes when we sing. In my songs, most of the messages are about women and children. My lyrics speak to them. But my appeal is to everyone. Men must help to protect women and make them happy, because throughout life women face many difficulties.  

In your career, you’ve already performed side by side with some legends of African music. Do you have any “role model” or is there any musician who particularly inspired you in these years?

Aliya Coulibaly, Molobali Traoré and Amy Koïta in particular. Both of my grandmothers and several of my aunts and uncles were also singers, so you can say I was surrounded by music when I was growing up.

After the release of the album, do you have any other plans for the near future?

Soon, I will travel to Paris where I will meet Jacknife Lee for the first time, and together with my band we will produce the live show for this album. I have my first show at the Paris Banlieues Bleues Festival at the end of April, and then I look forward to performing this music in various countries over the next year.

We always close our interviews with a tricky question… How would you present your music to someone who has never listened to it?

I ask people to listen to this music with an open mind. Some people may prefer the traditional Malian sound, and others may have a preference for the sounds which Jacknife Lee brought to the record, but I think everyone can find something they like in the album. This is a tribute to our Bambara culture, but I hope that it can inspire people from all parts of the world.

BANAMAN, Rokia Koné's debut album, is out now via Real World Records. You can listen to and buy your copy following this LINK



Photo ©: Karen Paulina Biswell