Rokia Koné, from Mali, sings for the world. Especially women.
African musicians do not need outside help. Lately, Nigerian Afrobeat, South African Amapiano and other sleek, high-tech, downright danceable styles have reached listeners around the world without Western mediators. But the proof of a collaboration is in its sound, not its pedigree, and the ‘Bamanan’ album is a cross-continental alliance that finds its own synergy.
“Bamanan” features Rokia Koné – a Malian composer and singer who was one of the core members of the West African collective Les Amazones d’Afrique on their 2017 album “Amazon Republic” — with Garret “Jacknife” Lee, an Irish producer who worked with U2 and Taylor Swift and is now based in California.
Koné’s voice rightly springs from every song. Drawing inspiration from the West African griot style, she sings with gritty insistence, turning into a grater of sandpaper when her melodies reach their peak. His Malian band provides percussion, backup vocals and barbed modal guitar parts that allude to traditional African instruments. Lee adds keyboards, guitars, and drum beats, placing the songs in a whirling, spacious digital realm.
It’s an equal partnership that is clearly staged in the opening song, “Bi Ye Tulonba Ye” (“Today is a big party”), a call for unity and an end to disagreements. At first, Koné’s vocals are an urgent incantation amid soaring, respectful synthesizer tones, with a steady rhythm that slowly reveals itself. But the song takes off as her band joins in, surrounding her with rhythmic and melodic cross-currents of percussion and guitar.
“Bamanan” was built gradually and from a distance; Koné and Lee never met in person while making the album. During the pandemic, sessions Koné and his band had recorded in 2016 and 2018 — vocals in Paris, instruments in Mali — were sent to Lee after hearing Les Amazones while judging a remix contest. In 2020, Lee added instrumentals and production to Koné sessions, and he collaborated on a new song with Koné, “N’yanyan.”
Koné sang “N’yanyan” in Mali in August 2020, the day a coup overthrew the Malian government. Its melody is based on an old song; Lee’s production provides simple, sustained electric piano chords. On a day of political upheaval, Koné thoughtfully advised taking a step back while reflecting on mortality: “This life is passing/It’s only a moment,” she sang in Bambara, the language she uses throughout the album.
The sweep of history and a sense of outrage runs through “Bamanan.” Although not from a hereditary family of griots, Koné writes like a griot: a cultural guardian recalling history and speaking out as a community conscience. “Bamanan” takes its name from the Bamana Empire, two centuries when Bambara rulers ruled over much of what is now Mali. “Anw Tile (It’s Our Time)” blends modal guitar flourishes and shimmering synthesizers as Koné and his backing vocalists chronicle the rulers and geography of the empire: “This hour is golden,” voices declare in unison of women. “Those who missed it, it was a great moment.”
The album also extends the outspoken feminism that Koné shared with Les Amazones. “Mayougouba” (“move, dance”) happily says to women all over the world: “You are perfect as you are”. The most kinetic song on the album, “Kurunba”, rhythms her call-and-response vocals with galloping percussion and rapid synthesizer undulations, as Koné’s narrator pokes fun at being rejected by her husband after raising their child: “Now my child is of age/ Suddenly the door closed on me”, she reproaches.
Koné also redid a song she brought to the Amazons: “Mansa Soyari,” which celebrates female role models and insists, “A country is not great without women. With Les Amazones, the song was swaggering, distorted, psychedelic rock; with Lee it’s lighter, more syncopated and more transparent, invoking the kora (harp-guitar) motifs of griot songs, but also alluding to funk and displaying otherworldly digital manipulations. With its deep Bambara underpinnings, the song is certain where it comes from; he is equally certain that his passion will be understood everywhere.
Rokia Koné & Jacknife Lee