Boubacar Traore w/Zongo Junction
The Bell House
Tuesday, September 27
Better than: Eric Clapton’s probably inevitable African blues record.
Sly Stone offers one possible method for dealing with celebrity: get famous, sell your royalties and squander your money, drop out of sight, return to the surface through newspaper pieces that feed the frenzy for has-been celebrity items. You might not think a brighter alternative path could be illuminated by a 60-something guitarist from one of the poorest countries in the world, but it was on Tuesday night at the Bell House, where Boubacar Traore from Mali held a full house transfixed for an hour and a half and continued what has to be one of the more improbable comeback stories on the planet. Unlike Sly, Traore’s game plan goes something like this: get famous, disappear from view for a few decades, then resurface as a dignified elder statesman with well-received albums and tours around the world.
A star in the newly independent Mali during the early 1960s, Traore (nicknamed “Kar Kar” because of his soccer prowess; the name means “the dribbler” in Bambara) became synonymous with the fledgling nation’s aspirations, singing hits over the radio like “Mali Twist” and “Kar Kar Madison” that urged Malian pride. But the absence of royalty income forced him away from music and into a string of menial jobs; he was only rediscovered by the record-buying public in the early 1990s, when a French producer discovered him working in Paris. The string of albums he has recorded since then—capped by this year’s Mali Denhou—are nothing short of remarkable; they’re serene and riveting slices of a kind of “desert country blues” that’s all its own.
At the Bell House Traore’s deceptively simple acoustic guitar style was thankfully front and center, accompanied only by calabash (an upside-down gourd, on a table) player Madieye Niang and harmonica player Vincent Bucher. Songs like “N’Dianamogo” and “M’badehou” from the new album had churning cross rhythms that bounced from the calabash to Traore’s intricate fingerpicking, while older songs like “Macire” were more stately, with Bucher’s harmonica doubling long guitar melodies.
A lot of ink has been spilled on the link between West African guitar music (specifically from Mali) and American blues, not always with solid cause. Sure, the two share pentatonic scales and a sense of musical longing. But more often than not the two styles are worlds away, Malian guitar pop in particular bearing colors of Islamic melodies from further north in the Sahara and the overlapping polyrhythms of West Africa. Traore doesn’t sound like his more widely-known countrymen Ali Farka Toure or Haibib Koite, and in his set Monday night the link with American blues was clearer. That link was helped Bucher’s wailing harmonica, but was there in the music anyway, a kind of trance-inducing country-blues stripped of the I-IV-V harmonic structure that can straitjacket even the best-intentioned George Thorogood imitator. In a way he’s the African counterpart to John Lee Hooker and his one-chord boogie blues; last night, even the encores stretched into glistening one-chord vamps that could have stretched on into the night.
The opening band, Zongo Junction, was a glimpse into a different side of the African music diaspora. The young Brooklyn-based band is from the revivalist wing of an afrobeat resurgence now in its third or fourth wave—even their original songs sounded like Fela Kuti outtakes. Still, what the band lacked in innovation it made up for in sheer energy, with a brawny horn section that played unison lines with the force of a tractor-trailer and a rhythm section that roared with power and noise.
Critical bias: Will sell this review to get to Mali and take guitar lessons.
Overheard: Lots of French.
Random notebook dump: Why are one-chord songs better than three-chord songs?