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The first international star of African music was a woman – that’s important, but people don’t talk about her much.’ The world-famous Malinese singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré has taken it upon herself to change that. In a video that includes music, dance and spoken-word, she gives an impression of her work in progress.: Once Upon a Time, an Iron Rose… Her major inspiration, ‘Mama Africa’ Miriam Makeba (1932- 2008), has a central place in this.Makeba actively fought against apartheid. Also she was the first African woman to win a Grammy and her song Pata Pata made her into a global star. In 1990, at Nelson Mandela’s request, she returned to her native country after thirty years of exile. With vocals, historical images and more, the versatile Traoré, who previously featured at the festival in Peter Sellars’ Desdemona, pays a personal tribute to the legendary South African singer.
Miriam Makeba, superstar and champion of equality
Pata Pata, an energetically sung song to an exceptionally jumpy and danceable beat, sung in Xhosa, a language with characteristic clicking and plosive sounds. In 1967, it brought international fame to the South-African singer Miriam Makeba (South-Africa, 1932). She
already had a successful career behind her at the time; at the age of twenty, she gained national fame as a singer with the Manhattan Brothers. A performance in the documentary Come Back, Africa – a protest from 1959 against South-Africa’s apartheid policies – led to invitations to visit Europe and the United States. However, the South-African government denied her an entry visa when she wanted to return for her mother’s funeral and revoked her citizenship, after which she took up residence in the United States in the 1960s. She was soon discovered there by singer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte. Under his wing, she turned into a star, with Pata Pata becoming a hit worldwide. In 1963, Makeba appeared before a United Nations committee concerned with apartheid and called for an international boycott of her country. A year after her success with Pata Pata, when she married civil rights activist and Black Panther-member Stokely Carmichael, major record labels like RCA and Reprise terminated her contracts with them immediately. Concerts planned in the United States were cancelled from one day to the next. Makeba decided to leave America and took up residence in the African country Guinee, where she continued to speak out against the apartheid regime in her native country. She also became a United Nations delegate for her new homeland. Only in 1989 could her records be sold again in South-Africa. It was at the invitation of Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison, that she returned to her native country after a forced absence of thirty years.
Miriam Makeba was one of the first to introduce African music to a western audience. In the 1960s, she made records with Harry Belafonte that mixed traditional styles, before ‘world music’ emerged as a concept. In 1966, she was the first African artist to win a Grammy for An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba. She was adept in a wide range of styles; after the music from the townships and the South-African variety of jazz that characterised her music initially, elements of Afro-pop, Latin and hybrid music styles began to seep into her repertoire as time went on. Her early fame helped pave the way for artists like Fela Kuti, King Sunny Adé, Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita. She was called ‘Mama Africa’ because of her status as a star and role model. She was not only a role model as a singer; she was active in helping children infected with HIV, child soldiers and orphans. Besides awards for her music, she received the Dag Hammerskjøld Peace Prize and Otto Hahn Peace Medal for her fight against inequality. Makeba died in 2008 during a show in Italy, just after singing her all-time hit Pata Pata.
Rokia Traoré (Kati, 1974) is an award-winning Malian singer, composer, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. Traoré grew up as the daughter of a diplomat. Partly as a result of her itinerant childhood, she became
familiar with a rich variety of music at an early age, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, to Richard Wagner, Serge Gainsbourg and The Rolling Stones.
Her identity is deeply rooted in West Africa Mandinka culture but Traoré was born into the Bambara ethnic group and thus, considered a noble, she was not deemed to have the right to learn and sing the songs of the griots or choose a life of musicianship. Undeterred, Traoré established a successful career for herself as a musician, beginning in the 1990s. In 1997 she collaborated with the well-known Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, and she won the Radio France Internationale Découverte Afrique award. A year later, her debut album Mouneissa received high praise, thanks to its original take on Malian instruments and Malian traditions.
Her second album, Wanita (2000), was dubbed one of the best albums of the year by the New York Times. On Bowmboï (2003), Traoré collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, among others, and this album was awarded the prestigious BBC 3 World Music Award. She produced several more successful albums after this. In 2004 she toured North America and in 2009 she received the Victoire de la Musique and Best Artist awards at the Songlines Music Awards. In that same year she returned to Bamako in Mali where she established the Fondation Passerelle arts centre. In 2013 Traoré performed for the first time at the Holland Festival, in Desdemona (2010) by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and director Peter Sellars – a musical deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Othello.
- concept, direction
- Rokia Traoré
- Makan Coulibaly, Rokia Traoré
- guitar, vocals, dance
- Rokia Traoré
- Makan Coulibaly
- Mamah Diabaté
- Samba Diabaté
- Joël Massa Diarra
- Romeo Djibré
- Théâtre du Châtelet, Holland Festival