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Dream Mandé: Djata review at Theatre Royal Brighton – ‘Rokia Traoré’s mesmerising musical monologue’

Rokia Traoré performing Dream Mandé: Djata. Photo: Summer Dean
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The centrepiece of Rokia Traoré’s Brighton Festival guest directorship is this unique story-concert paying tribute to the ancient art of the griots.

Forgoing her electric guitar, the Malian singer sits flanked by a ngoni and a kora player, and encircled by the impressive orange skirt of her dress. In careful English, she narrates moments from the Epic of Sundiata, founder of the Mali Empire.

At points she breaks into song in the Bambara language, her extraordinary singing voice casting the narrative into thrilling colour, like illuminations in a manuscript.

Except of course that this mesmerising show is all about the importance of Africa’s oral history. Griots are West Africa’s musical historians, whose stories and songs keep the past alive.

Traoré has spoken of the “natural, intense and profound dramaturgy” of this tradition. The ripplings of Mamah Diabaté’s ngoni and Mamadyba Camara’s kora run through the story like a stream. Sometimes they recede, so that all our attention falls on the lone human voice, the delicately gesturing hands.

This 75-minute performance could have been a sampler for a much longer show. The tale of heroic destiny and human kindness, of hunters, soothsayers and a rampaging buffalo, is at points tantalisingly elliptical.

But Dream Mandé: Djata is a feat of memory, and Traoré has rather a lot on this month. In compact form, this UK premiere is a subtle but determined spur to Western audiences to explore Africa’s accounts of its own history – when, pre-slavery and colonisation, in 13th-century sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s first constitutions was born.

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Mesmerising musical monologue from the Malian superstar