With her work rooted in the Malian musical tradition yet defying the confines of a single culture, Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Rokia Traoré is regarded as one of Africa’s most inventive musicians. Born in 1974 in Mali to a diplomat father, Rokia travelled extensively during her youth: Algeria, Saudi Arabia, France and Belgium, where she studied. This nomadic upbringing exposed her to a wide variety of international musical influences from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, to Wagner, Serge Gainsbourg, and the Rolling Stones. A protégé of the legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Rokia’s breakthrough came in 1997 when she was hailed as the ‘African Revelation’ by Radio France Internationale.
In 2005 Rokia participated in the show ‘Billie & Me’, dedicated to the life of the legendary singer Billie Holiday. This project went on tour with a cast including Fontella Bass and Dianne Reeves. In 2005, she performed at huge concerts in Senegal and Switzerland known as ‘Africa Live’, alongside Youssou N’Dour, to support the fight against malaria.
A dedicated humanitarian, in 2009 she moved from France, where she’d lived for a decade, and set up the Foundation Passerelle in Bamako in support of emerging artists amidst the social crises in Mali. Supporting musical and artistic creation in Mali, the Foundation organises musical training courses and supports multi-disciplinary artistic creations, along with talks and debates about Malian society, culture, youth and the challenges they face.
In 2010, she took part in the show ‘Desdemona’, a collaboration with the writer and Nobel Prize for Literature Toni Morrison, and director Peter Sellars. After releasing several albums, a world tour of ‘Desdemona’, and winning a variety of music awards, Rokia was appointed Ambassador of Goodwill for the West and Central Africa region by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2015 she visited refugee camps in Burkina Faso and her sixth album ‘Né So’ (Home) was directly inspired by this experience and the conflict which erupted in the north of Mali in 2012.
She says of her appointment to be Brighton Festival Guest Director: “It is an opportunity to take the time to look at and to think about other artists’ work. These are circumstances you cannot usually create when you are working as an artist, but programming a festival is another experience – you do it from a different angle.”