It doesn’t seem that long ago that we lost Ali Farka Toure (I’m astonished to read it has now been over four years), but we have now lost another of the great Malian guitar players: Lobi Traore died in June in Bamako of as yet still unknown causes. Dying at the age of just 49, he leaves a recorded legacy which is disproportionately small in comparison to his undoubted talents; his breakthrough release Bamako was not released until the mid 1990s after all. However, in Mali Traore was of course much better known for his live performances than his recorded work. His raw, electrified guitar lit up the clubs of Bamako, his fiery style blending rock and the blues (his heroes included both Angus Young and John Lee Hooker) with more traditional Malian Bambara styles.
So, the perfect epitaph would be something along those lines then, wouldn’t it? Well, not exactly. It seems that Traore did in fact have such a recording session in mind when producer Chris Eckman showed up in town, but a mix up (fault being ascribed in both directions) meant that a full band recording wasn’t feasible. Rather than waste the opportunity, Traore grabbed an acoustic guitar and laid down ten tracks right there. Somehow these stripped back recordings have an even greater power than you can imagine the band versions would have: highlighting Traore’s guitar and vocals, but adding a haunting sparseness, the same quality you’d expect from the recordings of great Delta bluesmen from Charley Patton to Fred McDowell. Far from the celebratory nature of his live material, this feels undeniably poignant, even before you consider the lyrical content, which ranges from stern warnings to his Malian brothers to musings on death. The voice varies from the deep and sonorous to the soft and weary-sounding, while his guitar lines range from raw and angular to soft, rolling, repetitive blues phrases. The blues runs right through the core of the album, even alluded to in its title, but Traore would be no doubt keen to emphasise that this is African not American music, and always gives it his own touch to identify the distinctiveness of his Malian version, from the delicate way he tangles vocals and guitar lines together on the fragile “Melodie De Bambara Blues”, to the one chord dirge-like backing he gives “Siguidialen”.
“My friends, the life of man is a brief stay”, Traore sings on “Alah Ka Bo”. How sad that he was proved right so quickly. Other releases may yet follow, but these last recording sessions may well stand as his masterpiece.