Lobi Traoré, who died just over a year ago, was an under-recognized figure in Malian music. Part of this may be due to the fact that his initial run of recordings—1992’s Bambara Blues, 1994’s Bamako, 1996’s Ségou and 1998’s Duga—are all out of print. Fortunately, a compilation drawn from those albums, Mali Blue, and all of his work from the latter half of the 2000s remains available.
At one point, Traoré was supported by the king of the Malian music scene, Ali Farka Touré, who produced Bamako and even played on a few tracks. It was Touré, with help from Nick Gold and the World Circuit label, who brought the vibrant Malian music scene to world attention beginning in the late ’80s. Both Traoré and Touré play acoustic guitar in a forceful style that combines a West African lilt with the percussive physicality of the Delta blues. (It’s no surprise that Touré collaborated with Delta blues revivalists Taj Mahal and Corey Harris.) But when Traoré plugged in and fronted a full band, he had a whole other thing going on—raucous and raw, with all the scorching firepower any rock listener could ask for.
These two albums, both released in 2010, show the two sides of Traoré. Rainy Season Blues (buy it from Amazon) is a solo disc, stripped down to acoustic guitar and vocals. With 10 tracks in only 36 minutes, it’s a concise statement of purpose. Two-minute tracks like “Melodie de Bambara Blues” and “Sorotemimbo” feature hypnotic repetitions of simple melodies, as Traoré repeats one or two lyrical phrases over and over again, in an almost incantatory manner. Some of the longer tracks, like the five-minute “Hinè,” display a little more virtuosity, but Traoré is still more of a powerhouse guitarist than a shredder. He hits the strings with such force that the microphone frequently distorts, and his sandaled foot can be heard slapping against the studio floor, maintaining an inner rhythm no drummer could match (John Lee Hooker was famous for his eccentric self-timekeeping, too, which led producers to give him an apple box to stomp on, with a microphone inside it). And his solos are like a string of contained explosions, strings twanging and popping in an exhilaratingly unhinged manner. “A Lamèn” is a straight-up boogie, the latest link in a chain that runs from Hooker through ZZ Top, the low strings buzzing like a taxicab-sized hornet and the high strings twanging like they’re being cut with tin snips.
No matter how wild he gets as a solo performer, though, it doesn’t compare to the fully unhinged sound of his electric band. Bwati Kono (buy it from Amazon) is subtitled “Raw Electric Blues from Bamako,” and little more need be said. This isn’t the genteel, horn-bolstered blues of American festivals; this is noisy, grinding, hypnotic stuff. Traoré’s guitar sound is somewhere between Junior Kimbrough and Neil Young with Crazy Horse, and he’s backed by a second guitarist, an electric bassist whose lines are more dub than blues, and several percussionists playing (depending on the track) a Western drum kit, congas, and a marimba or thumb piano. The effect is like Konono No. 1 jamming with the Band of Gypsys-era Jimi Hendrix. The shortest song is three minutes, but the longest is over ten, and they average about six. Lyrics are kept to a minimum; this music is about putting in work on the guitar, as the band keeps the rhythm rattling along, loose but never quite losing the seemingly bottomless groove. Somewhat fascinatingly, Bwati Kono is billed as a live album, and has the unpolished feel of a soundboard recording, but there is no audience noise, and no apparent interaction between Traoré and the audience. Perhaps some of his exclamations while soloing are directed at people listening—ignorance of the language fails me. But this could just as easily be a tape of the band rehearsing.
In many ways, Lobi Traoré’s rattletrap, tranced-out take on the blues reminds me of Junior Kimbrough, who I saw live in 1996, opening for Iggy Pop. Kimbrough was overweight and likely unhealthy, and he performed from a chair, flanked by a bassist and a drummer who looked significantly younger than he. They played what felt like a single 45-minute song that melded Hendrixian pyrotechnics with John Lee Hooker-esque trance-boogie. It was a sound never equaled on any of Kimbrough’s CDs, though Sad Days, Lonely Nights, with its hazy production like a half-remembered bad dream, came close. Bwati Kono, if it is indeed a live recording, serves as a glimpse at what those of us who never got to see him perform before his death missed—an African take on the blues that threw Latin percussion, dub basslines, and punk energy into the mix. The minimal, rough graphics of both these CDs also remind me of releases on the Fat Possum label, particularly Rainy Season Blues, with its cover art of a photo paper-clipped to a piece of cardboard and Traoré’s name hand-written on a scrap of paper. If Lobi Traoré was a bluesman, he was definitely a Fat Possum-style player, not some slickster destined to make the festival and theater circuit. Both these CDs are fitting tributes to his memory, and highly recommended.