Jacknie Lee + Rokia Koné
Jacknife Lee needed a shock. The Los Angeles-based Irish-born producer has spent the better part of the past two decades behind the boards with some of the biggest names in pop and rock and roll: U2, REM, The Killers, even Taylor Swift. But something was missing.
“I was making records with an ‘adult’ mentality,” he admits, while speaking from his home studio via Zoom. “I was making sensitive records. i did what i thought should make.
So, like most music fans looking for inspiration, he hit local record stores and started digging, bringing home tunes from Brazil, West Africa and Besides.
“I didn’t know the languages I was listening to, which forced me to engage with music on a purely emotional level. It all became about how the music made my body feel,” he says.
Then singer-songwriter Rokia Koné landed in her inbox and the pieces started to fit together again.
Koné had already made a name for himself in his native Saharan home, Mali, singing mostly in the local Bamana language. Mali is most famously, to Western ears, the source of the deep, guitar-based Tuareg music of acts like Tinariwen. But Koné was creating something new, straddling tradition and pure, unbridled creativity. Already one of the animating voices of the African feminist supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique, she was just beginning to deepen her own expression as a solo artist.
In May 2020, Real World Records asked Lee to judge a remix contest for a new track Les Amazones. It was then that the voice of Rokia Koné really hooked him. After an exchange of emails, Lee received a batch of unfinished songs from Koné – which he describes as raw, complex and deeply infectious – with the green light from his manager to dig.
“His voice,” he said. “Once I heard it, nothing else mattered. I felt like I was holding a hummingbird in my hand. I don’t know anyone who communicates like her. It reveals itself immediately; it’s raw and vulnerable. I was just in awe. But the fact that I was impressed was of no use to him. So I got to work. »
Shortly after, BAMANAN – the stunningly beautiful experimental collaboration between a Malian star and an Irish producer – was born.
In Bamako, capital and cultural center of Mali, Koné is at home preparing dinner for her children when she sits down to answer questions, through a translator, about the genesis of BAMANAN. She’s been a renowned singer in Mali for years, and Les Amazones have taken her on tour across Europe, but BAMANAN is something totally new, connecting her long musical family history to the future of Malian music.
“Both of my grandparents’ ensembles were singers; all my uncles were too. My grandmother is a praise singer and she still sings today at the age of 98,” says Koné. “She used to sing at weddings and child naming ceremonies, and I learned my first songs from her.”
Koné grew up in a village a few hundred kilometers upstream from Bamako, surrounded by her family of musicians. She remembers first appearing in front of an audience when she was 9 years old. When local singer Aliya Coulibaly came to perform years later, she boldly asked if he could teach her to sing with guitar accompaniment.
“At the time, in our village, we only sang with traditional percussion instruments like the gitaha or the djembe, without string instruments,” she says.
Before long, she moved to Bamako and joined his group. Over the next decade, Koné “really started to take my music seriously”.
By the time Koné joined Les Amazones d’Afrique in 2016, she was a regular at Bamako clubs. Her performances, heralded as transcendent musical experiences, were filled with improvisation and passion in equal measure. There are dozens of recordings from this period, many of which are filled with loose, meandering songs that last over 20 minutes.
The collection of tracks his manager sent Lee in early 2020 wasn’t entirely different — the energy was blinding, with Koné’s voice skipping through the speakers. But they were even better enjoyed live. One song, “N’yanyan”, was recorded in Bamako in August 2020, just hours after a coup threw Mali into political and economic downfall.
“We only managed to record ‘N’yanyan’ the night before the city closed [and the power was cut]“says Koné. The vocal track Lee received was recorded in one take, amid immense concern and uncertainty.
Back in California and stuck at home due to COVID-19, Lee approached recordings like a surgeon — extracting Koné’s vocal tracks, cutting long looping melodies and constructing more concise songs. He added warm layers of piano, shapeshifting synthesizers and polyrhythmic percussion. Some cuts felt like meditations, others like dance parties, but they were all mesmerizing. Lee had no plan or agenda besides making Koné’s vocals shine – and the resulting arrangements elevate Koné’s melodies to the heavens.
“I was very aware of being the white European guy who came in and said, ‘Let me sort this out for you,'” he says. “There can be colonialism in music, certainly. So I based this project on Night Song, a record that feels like a unique and timeless idea.
This 90s collaboration between Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Canadian producer Michael Brook is a benchmark for multicultural collaboration. It was Lee’s inspirational north star as he remixed and reassembled Koné’s songs.
Communication between California and Mali was minimal – Lee sent back reworked tracks and awaited feedback. But Koné and his band were fascinated by this new sound and let Lee explore the sound.
And although the producer never really spoke with Koné as BAMANAN took shape – much less met her in person – a 10-song album soon emerged.
“I admit I was a bit shocked when I first heard the results because it’s very different from the music we listen to here,” Koné says. “But I love what he’s done. I hope this album will encourage people to look into our culture and our music. And I’m sure even my grandma will love it.