On a perfect summer day—warm, low humidity, with a clear, cloudless sky—Rokia Traore adjusts her muffler-length scarf and wraps her cotton-linen jacket closer around her petite frame. Weariness clouds her face on the last day of back-to-back interviews and promotional appearances, and she’s now ensconced in the most air-conditioned space at Nonesuch’s New York offices. But, as the saying goes, business is business.
And today, the Malian singer’s third album, Bowmboï, tops the agenda. A departure from her previous efforts, Bowmboï finds Traore singing entirely in Bamanan, one of several languages spoken in Mali. Traore begins by providing the correct pronunciation: “bohm-boy.”
“As an expression it means nothing,” Traore asserts, adding that it’s more a sound than a word, part of a larger saying expressing a deep sense of parental love and obligation. The word begins a traditional song still sung to newborns by their mothers. Traore sings a bit of the old song. “My mother used to sing it to me,” she says, cutting off the lilting tune and breaking the spell. “She doesn’t know anymore what it means. Nobody knows.”
Traore based her album’s title track, a tender song arranged sparingly, on the emotion buried deep within the lullaby. “It is a parent telling thank you to his baby,” Traore says. “‘Thank you for choosing me. You could have chosen a rich person, a powerful person, but you chose me. I don’t have nothing else to give but my love. God bless you.’
“It’s very interesting—having a baby is very different in Western cultures,” Traore continues. “Here, you decide to have it, and you have to take care of it because you decided to have it. At home, having a baby is something decided when you get married. How many children you have or when is not. When you’re married, if you are pregnant, you will have it. It’s a child of God. The baby chooses to come, you don’t decide it.”
The demands for Western-style family planning seem facile to Traore. “Generally there’s a confusion about children’s situation concerning economical conditions and the culture, and Africans are presented as irresponsible. There’s no parent that doesn’t love his child. We have to be careful to understand that these people have a dignity. I’m not happy about how Western countries portray [Africans’] relationships with their children.”
Traore’s philosophical bent echoes that of Bowmboï. Acoustic and alternatively lilting and rhythmically insistent, the collection offers observations of life as a West African. “’Wanita,’ in terms of lyrics, is more about what we want to do with our lives,” Traore says.<