MALIAN GUITARIST-VOCALIST Barbour Traoré. (photo credit: Carly Viator/Lusafrica)
(photo credit: Carly Viator/Lusafrica)

Mali's Boubacar Traoré to perform at Jerusalem Jazz Festival


Jazz festivals, for many years now, have featured all sorts of sounds and genres in their programs, including some whose connection with the improvisational art form is, at best, tenuous. But the blues is patently relevant to the core of the thematic field of music as, basically, the platform from which jazz sprouted and blossomed before splintering into umpteen directions. And if you’re going to bring over a bluesman, as perennial Jerusalem Jazz Festival artistic director and internationally renowned trumpeter Avishai Cohen has opted to do, why not go straight to the source?

The vast majority of blues fans will, no doubt, be into the acoustic variety of the blues, from the cradle of the American art form, the Delta region of the Deep South. Others may prefer the electric variety which was spawned in Chicago. But Boubacar Traoré hails from the fountainhead of the music, and the culture and spirit that fuel it.

The 81-year-old Malian guitarist-vocalist will light up the stage at the Israel Museum on Tuesday (9:15 p.m.), the first evening of the three-dayer, as one of this year’s festival headliners. He brings with him the echoes of generations of grassroots musicians who sang about their everyday lives, trials, tribulations, joys and much betwixt. He is also the last Malian bluesman of his generation still around and doing the business, particularly since the untimely death of celebrated compatriot blues musician Ali Farka Touré, in 2006.

Traoré salutes the impact of his late musical sparring partner, and how he helped to pave the octogenarian’s way to wider audiences. “Farka was an important person in Mali and for the international acknowledgment for the Malian blues. I appreciate him [as a person] as well as a great artist. It was sad when he died.”

It was a body blow for fans of Farka’s singular output. He was responsible for introducing music lovers around the world to the sounds and sensibilities of traditional rural music from his neck of the African woods, and gave us all a glimpse of what the blues may have sounded like before they went west to New Orleans and on to the rest of America and the Western world. But, thankfully, Traoré is still with us to keep the Malian blues torch burning brightly and emotively.


How Boubacar Traoré got into music

TRAORÉ’S ROAD to music making began over six decades ago.

“I started playing guitar when I was 17, with the guitar of my brother who studied music in Cuba,” he recalls. It came as no surprise to hear the youngster started out on his own terms. “I taught myself to play,” he notes. The same sibling also encouraged him to add vocals to his instrumental work.

In late 1950s Mali teenagers did not have ready access to what was going down in the States and UK, as rock & roll took off, with blues constantly lurking in the rhythmic and textural substratum. As such, in his earliest formative years Traoré fed off a pure diet of the songs that had been played in his cultural and geographic milieu for generations. “My musical roots are African,” he states simply.

Eventually, however, the outside world began to leave its imprint on Traoré’s evolving musical consciousness. “When I was young I listened mostly to Cuban music, [and] in the sixties to music from the States, Chuck Berry or Otis Redding, for example, but also a lot of the music that was current at that time.” Jazz also left its mark on the youngster’s developing line of musical thought.

Traoré was not only looking to hone his artistic skills; he was keen to use his music to convey messages about the burning issues of the day. As has been the case across the world since time immemorial for anyone willing to take a stand against the powers that be, and stick their head above the political parapet, that didn’t exactly help move the young man’s incipient career along in the desired direction. Ironically, he says that was when he first felt he had joined the ranks of bona fide professional musicians. “I composed a song for Mali’s independence that was played every morning on the radio. With this song, I wanted to encourage people to help build our country.”

While the euphoria of African independence from French colonialism washed over the country, Traoré made his mark as a pioneer in adapting traditional music of the local Mandigo tribe to electric guitar.

His hits of the day included “Mali Twist” and “Kayeba,” which provided dance music for a generation of youngsters who were enjoying their first taste of freedom. However, the political honeymoon did not last, and Boubacar had to opt for plan B in order to make ends meet. “With the coup against the president, broadcasts were canceled, and I had to make a living as a craftsman and tradesman.”

It took a while for him to get back on track. “Only in the late eighties people were again aware of my songs, and in a short time I could record some tapes and CDs. This gave me the opportunity to perform in Europe and America.”

He may have finally become a household name, but Traoré was not about to start flaunting his newly regained success. He says his lifestyle changed little, “even if a musician likes to be well known. I keep a simple life in Mali,” he adds.

I wondered how hearing the work of such Delta-rooted blues icons as Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters affected his thinking. While that veered into hit artistic vision, Traoré has stayed as close as possible to his cultural source. “The blues is coming from Mali,” he observes. “The basis of this music is really with our African roots. For me, the blues never left Africa to the US. Even though I was inspired by some US artists, I [always] considered my music as coming for Mali. I always nourished my music with local rhythms from Mali.”

That’s just what we can look forward to hearing at the Israel Museum as we get a rare opportunity to hear African blues, albeit played on a cross-cultural instrumental bedrock. “I use guitar and [gourd-based percussion instrument] calabash, and I have been on the road with a harmonica player for several years,” he adds, referencing French harmonica player extraordinaire Vincent Bucher.

We will, no doubt, hear captivating music and mesmerizing melodies, but also a yarn or two. “All my songs tell stories, sometimes based on traditional tales,” Traoré notes. But also everyday life has inspired me to songs, like “Le jour de trente-un” or “Minuit,” which tells of midnight and the hour of the spirits.” Sounds enticing.

For tickets and more information about the Jerusalem Jazz Festival:

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