— At the Festival

Published on May 2 2018

Rokia TraorÉ: Representing Dido as a fighter

© Danny Willems

Dido and Æneas, baroque chef d’oeuvre by the British composer Henry Purcell tells of the romances and rifts of Dido, Queen of Carthage and Æneas, an exiled Trojan. In a concentrated form lasting an hour, a destiny changes course. Yet this destiny, Vincent Huguet, the stage director wanted to put it into a larger perspective by commissioning from Maylis de Kerangel a prologue telling us of Dido’s voyages preceding her settling in Carthage. It is to Rokia Traoré, singer, author-composer-performer and guitarist a native of Mali that the interpretation of this prologue has been entrusted.

For the show Desdemona, you collaborated with the Nobel Literature prize winning writer Toni Morrison; for this production of Dido and Æneas, it is the prologue written by the French author Maylis de Kerangal that you will interpret... You have the dual responsibility of being both an author and a performer, what is your relationship to writing?

Music and words often go together. It is not rare to find musicians who write texts just as certain writers know how to play an instrument or take pleasure in singing. The end result is the same, that of relating/narrating something and expressing moods. Each one of us has his own vision of a same story and the emotions which are the result of it are always unique. Writing and music address different senses, but each one has its rationale. I like reading other people’s writing just as I like writing; I like working with my own texts just as I like working with other people’s texts. You can rediscover yourself through the writings of others. By plunging into a different world, we understand things we did not even dream about up until that point. So much more than a discipline, writing represents for me a way of life. Read others, “write others”, talk about the others, learn about the others: that’s life!

The stage director Vincent Huguet chose to make a portrait of Dido before she had even met Æneas. In much the same manner, in Desdemona by Peter Sellars, it was a case of giving back her position to this female character even if it meant putting Othello in the shadows. How do you explain the urgency and the will to see women in a new perspective?

You could say: “We are in the 21st century; things are not what they used to be”, but you could also say: “We are in the 21st century and things have not sufficiently evolved”. Women have always had to show extreme discretion, to put themselves at the service of a man who thus became the principal interface, the unique intermediary. We are still, always and for ever in a world where feminine power is very badly perceived. Who would declare that he is prepared to be directed by a woman? It is not natural to see a woman in power, to see her take on a positive and constructive role. It has to be admitted, Dido is not exempt. Purcell’s opera makes use of a great classic: that of an amorous woman and concentrates not on the character of Dido, but on this impossible love. We are told that, for the love of Æneas, Dido takes her own life. Her gesture can be interpreted in a number of ways, but it is thus that we choose to tell the story of Dido. Because, an amorous queen is much more interesting than a queen endowed with wisdom and intelligence in the management of power. It is highly topical! Because, even if there is undeniable progress today, this can be deceptive, and lead us to believe that as far as emancipation is concerned, we have arrived where we needed to get to. Whereas in fact we are still only halfway there.

When you look at the rich complexity of Dido’s background, it is difficult to understand why the opera which is dedicated to her, devotes so little time to that background. Thankfully, this piece can be approached from a different angle nowadays. We can at last present Dido as a fighting woman, strengthened by great willpower and a certain genius.

In one of your songs entitled Beautiful Africa, you remind us that the women of Bamako, dressed like queens are so beautiful. Is Dido also a queen, “a vagrant queen” according to Fawzi Mellah whose own heroic life came to a tragic end. Finally, what do these women of yesterday and of today, here and elsewhere have in common?

What it is that honours these women, is their fighting spirit! Watch the women of Bamako straddle their motorbikes: nothing is more dangerous, but it has to be admitted that there is nothing more beautiful! The body outfits on the motorbikes, the elegance with which they drive… The Malian woman on her motorbike carrying her baby behind her on her back and another child in front that she will drop off at school before going to work. She’s a warrior, and the queens are above all warriors! I am not talking about the arms they have to equip themselves with in order to go into battle. The battle here, it’s their everyday life. The battle here, it is to permanently think about what to do? How to get away? How to stay?
Dido maintains privileged links with all these women. They have a form of elegance in common, the same which they take into a very tough daily battle to achieve an objective right to the very end…

In opera, heroines who die on stage abound, it would even appear that feminine heroism reaches its pinnacle with the martyr and it has to be admitted, Dido is not spared. How can you explain this?

It is a great classic, you only have to think of the way in which Desdemona dies! I come to the following conclusion: You cannot have living heroes! In other words, in life, on a daily basis, a woman cannot be held up as a heroine if she is alive. Whatever the culture in which her destiny is written – in Africa, in Asia, indeed even in Europe – a discreet woman is appreciated everywhere.

Die and disappear at the end of an heroic act, it is a discreet way for a woman to exist as a “hero”. The everyday life of a woman still takes on, always and for ever, the form of a sacrifice.

After having momentarily left Mali, you decided to go back and to work there, notably for the Passerelle Foundation. In the song Be aware, you are addressing those people who might be tempted by a “dangerous crossing”. Put a brake on hazardous migratory voyages, as well as the exodus of artists of talent…Is this one and the same combat?

It is simply a way of doing something at my level, there where I live. In the absence of grants and cultural policy, we have to exist as artists. The Foundation constitutes not only an altruistic act, but it also exists for me. How can one practise a profession in a country where there are no structures? Moreover, professionalism is not always present – in any case not as you may have experienced it when you have had an international career. Have the ambition to create a level of professionalism in Mali equal to that which I have encountered when I work abroad is something which is not only beneficial, but vital.
As far as migrants are concerned, it is the same thing: I strive to do something in places where it is unbearable to do anything. I am aware that what I do goes against the flow. As long as our governments do not place as a basis to their reflection the search for solutions to give Africa back her dignity, too often considered inferior elsewhere, we will never be able to get out of this stalemate. The negative outlook of the former colonial powers and their leaders needs to change. Think of the number of young people in Africa, of the demography, of all the free space which could be inhabited, of all the consumer potential: is it as negative as some would like to claim? It is up to our leaders to turn all this into something positive: to have all of this youth is certainly not a bad thing, what is negative, is not knowing what to do, to such an extent as to let them take so many risks.

How can you encourage them to stay?

There is enough room for all these young people in Africa and a great need to populate this continent! Why go and help build elsewhere, in places where there remain only professions which are despised by Europeans and that only migrants are prepared to accept? In absolute terms, the exodus of young people is not a solution for Africa.  The saddest thing though is that I simply do not hear very often this analysis. Young people who leave because of a love for travel is one thing. But those who leave in search of work is another and it is not acceptable: this is what our leaders should say! Africa is a building site continent. How can we change this way of operating to avoid all these out-of-work youngsters with no perspectives and so little respect for their own lives and for their country to the point that they throw themselves into such voyages? Of course, it is not me who is going to be able to change all this, but there are a lot of things to be done in education and educational support. I am looking forward to seeing action on this front and to seeing an Africa which knows how to be inclusive how to educate and to create the conditions necessary for the self-accomplishment of its children.

Is staying perceived as an act of resistance?

To resist is to go against the tide, it is to follow a logic which is not shared. Today, say to young people: “Europe is not for you!” can be misinterpreted. There is a good chance that this warning would not be well received. They might simply think that we do not want either their happiness or their self-accomplishment. Far be it from me to suggest the idea that they should never go out of the country! It is legitimate that they should desire other places, but not to the point of taking the risks that we know they are taking.

Mali is the third producer of gold in Africa, that is something after all! It is up to us to find solutions so that the children of our country find work at home.

There was a time when on the shores of Lampedusa, the sea turtles would be taken care of by the WWF…

It’s madness! When you think that it is easier for us to come to the rescue of sea turtles rather than save our own brothers and sisters… The turtles do not require a residence permit and that is the big difference. So, do not confuse migrants and refugees! The refugees come from the Middle-East and are fleeing the war, whereas the majority of migrants come from the African continent. The hostility towards migrants is due to the idea according to which they come to profit from the advantages of others because of their incapacity to build something at home. The big international companies, quoted on the Stock Exchange, take advantage of our resources and use our raw materials so much so that Africans feel legitimate in requesting aid from abroad. This has a pernicious effect… Africans must wake up and denounce the abuse on one side and handouts on the other. They must refuse to be with those who ask for aid and position themselves with those who sell at a fair price. It is thus that we can have a peer to peer dialogue. It is easier to say than to do, but it remains the unique condition for change.

Is this the message you give to the artists whom you accompany in your Foundation?

Absolutely! Have a production unit in Bamako, be able to create my own shows here is essential for me. Build projects “’Made in Mali” which are then sold internationally, is a means of allowing Malians to take charge of communication, production and organisation. This permits us to avoid entering into a logic in which we need European approval in order to work in Europe. I have to make myself acceptable with what I know how to do, which does not mean that I avoid all forms of collaboration. On the contrary, I appreciate collaborations which take place on the basis of a shared desire and a mutual respect between two artists, and not a European artist who would come “to help” an African artist.

We have to create the necessary conditions to succeed in imposing ourselves in Africa as worthy partners.

A common thread in Maylis de Kerangel’s work is the sea which is omnipresent in the story Dido and Æneas as Vincent Huguet wishes to tell it. What do the shores of Carthage say about roaming, exile and reconstruction?

The sea evokes an opportunity, a perspective… It increases the concern of those who are on the other side. Large expanses in general suggest this whether they be seas or deserts. The sea stimulates the imagination. It allows us to see ourselves in another way and to project ourselves over to the other side. It gives us the desire and the courage to reconstruct ourselves – elsewhere as well as within ourselves. We have observed a heightened imagination in people who are close to the sea. Geographical situation determines the social behaviour of a given people. The sea stretches to infinity the limits of the imagination and encourages the fulfilment of what we want to achieve.

The choice of living in Africa does not mean curtailing the dialogue with the rest of the world. On the contrary, you are contributing to creating ties between Africa and the world in a multitude of ways, isn’t that so?

The Foundation’s projects often connect us to artists in Europe, allowing us to live rich exchanges, and to leave traces here and there of our comprehension of other cultures. It is very important for me to maintain these forms of exchange and invitation. It is very important that Mali should be equipped with auditoria and theatres, rehearsal and recording studios and can invite projects as much as it can create them. We must increase the opportunities to encounter local artists. It is also a means of giving back to the Malian public a reason to come out of the house and to go and see some shows. Television has enormously changed cultural habits: our parents were more active in terms of going out in the evening and of cultural activities than my generation. It is a reflex we need to get back. Having a cultural venue in your neighbourhood is a good start, make it a living venue is the second stage.

Interview with Rokia Traoré, interviewed by Aurélie Barbuscia
Translation:  Christopher Bayton