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(MALI, 1991) @
Lobi Traoré: 1961-2010
A remembrance by Banning Eyre
Lobi Traoré, one of Mali's most exciting, original and enigmatic guitar talents, died in Bamako on June 1st. He was just 49, and the cause of death remains unclear, but it was sudden and completely unexpected. Lobiâ€”born Bouréïma TraorÃ©â€”came of age in the Segou region, steeped in Bambara culture. Bambara music, whether sung with percussion, played on pentatonic balafons or ngonis, or adapted to guitars, has a powerful, earthy quality that resonates with the sonority and character of American blues. That association inspired Lobi's breakout 1991 album, "Bambara Blues, " and led to many future projects, including a Bamako jam session with Bonnie Raitt, an album with French blues harmonica player Vincent Bucher, a recording and tours with Dutch blues-rocker Joep Pelt, and more recently work with American guitarist Chris Eckman. But for all his international acclaim, Lobi will be best remembered for his work at home. He created a unique and personal guitar style that fused a rock 'n' roll sensibility with deep intuitive knowledge of Bambara folklore. He wrote a body of songs full of humor, aphoristic wisdom and moral clarity. And he was an especially beloved figure among the working class Malians he entertained in countless, wee-hours performances at down-home bars and clubs in Bamako.
The first time I saw Lobi play was in the mid-90s in a rather seedy downtown Bamako venue called Bozo Bar. I knew his cassettes by then, but was not prepared for the gritty power of his electric band performance. Nor for the way the crowd responded. Bamako audiences are generally quite restrained and sober, but this was down and dirty, couples crowding into the bar's limited dance space, shuffling their feet in fast steps as the band moved through various genres of regional, pentatonic dance music styles. Lobi, who stood barely five feet tall, was a powerhouse on electric guitar, and a flashy dresser who might wear hunter's bogolan regalia one night, and a fuzzy, lime-green vest the next. When it came to guitar, every note and every line he played had character, and he made spectacular use of space, pausing for effect then charging into another gnarly tangle of riffs.
When Bar Bozo was closed down, Lobi moved his party out of town to a spot called Ma Kele Kele. Hidden in the woods off an unmarked side street, this outdoor venue still managed to draw a crowd, especially late at night, with the neon-lit bar and grill doing brisk business, pigs milling aroundâ€”the place was owned by Christians in this mostly Muslim countryâ€”and a big, circular, concrete dance floor that Lobi and his musicians kept packed past three in the morning.
In 2000, when Afropop visited Mali with a group of listeners, we found the scene still jumping at Ma Kele Kele. Bonnie Raitt was along on that trip, and she was so impressed by Lobi's style that she invited him to participate in a private jam session in Bamako a few days laterâ€”just for fun. In 2003, Lobi made his first trip to Mali's northern desert to perform at the Festival in the Desert outside of Timbuktu. He was enchanted by the experience and delivered a sizzling set there. He continued to record, both in electric and acoustic formats, right up to the time of his untimely passing.
Lobi did finally make it to the US to playâ€”long a dream of hisâ€”first with Joep Pelt, then as part of special blues series sponsored by Brooklyn's 651 Arts, and finally as part of an elaborate showcase for the Honest Jon record label, hosted by Damon Albarn. But much more lay in store for him. Two new Lobi albums are soon to be releasedâ€”watch this space for more on thoseâ€”and there is no doubt that he was destined to bring his own band here for a proper club tour. Sadly, that is not to be, but Lobi will live on, with a stature towering above his diminutive physique, and a reputation far outlasting his too short life.
Lobi leaves behind a wife and four children.
Mali Blue is a godsend for the budget-conscious world music fans out there, collecting 14 tracks from Lobi Traore's four out-of-print or import albums released between 1991 and 1998. As is the case with his mentor Ali Farka Toure (who produces and appears on several tracks), Traore fuses warm conversational singing and hypnotic blues guitar to the traditional Bambara sounds of djembi, tamani and n'goni.
The connection between the two cultures is particularly potent on the songs featuring harmonica player Vincent Butcher, whose strong grasp of the blues lexicon expands the dynamic reach of these riff-oriented tunes. Nonetheless, even without the harmonica, Traore does excellent job on his own, moving from stripped down guitar and voice ("Warani") to electric blues ("Ni Tougou La Mogo Miko") to more Africanized sounds ("Sadiourou"), leaving listeners with a well-rounded sense of who this singer/guitarist is. Truly a fine introduction (or reintroduction) to an artist deserving wider recognition.
1. Warani 2. Sadiourou 3. Nama da Yele 4. Dunya 5. A Magni 6. Moryene Kalan 7. Ni Tougou la Mogo Miko 8. Wolodennu 9. Tiekoroba10. Tjounde 11. Maya Ye Sanka Ye 12. Fatouma Be 13. Anun Ka Ben 14. Ni Tougou la Mogo Miko [Live]