FIELD TRIP/MEET UP: I haven’t proposed one of these in years, but an artist as remarkable and generally distant as Boubacar Traore doesn’t come to New York often. He’ll be peforming at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Friday, December 2, at 7 PM. Tickets are $65, and include museum admission. For information and tickets, click here. If you’re going, let me know.
In 1960, as Mali was becoming independent, Boubacar Traore was its Elvis Presley. He was on the radio every day, singing “Mali Twist.” Come home, he cried. Help us build our country. And his brothers heard him, and they threw themselves into building their nation. But he didn’t make records, so he made no money. To support his wife and six children, he became a tailor, then a salesman. His wife died. Crushed, he fled to Paris, where he was a construction worker. And then he was rediscovered.
But now he was 65.
When I saw him in New York, a few years ago, Traore came on stage with one amplified acoustic guitar. He was accompanied by a drummer who clicked an overturned gourd with his rings, occasionally pounding it with the heel of his palm.
My expectations ranged from zero to modest.
I knew a fair amount about the music of Mali, how it infused America’s Delta blues with African rhythm and tuning. But Traore was working at a level beyond anything I’d heard. When he played softly, his guitar was a whispered voice, ghostly and precise; when he played with volume, he was a one-man blues band. And then there was the not inconsiderable factor of his voice, which accessed all the known emotions and the wisdom of the ages.
Women threw money. There were ovations. Traore held up his hands to stop them, then modestly tapped his heart. I thought: This is the J.J. Cale of Mali.
A magnificent evening. We staggered out.
Since that night, I’ve played Boubacar Traore’s CDs often, always during the day. One song blends into another and he sings in French, both ideal for a writer — his music cuts the loneliness of being alone without becoming a presence.
During a blizzard, it was easy to stay up late. Which is how, in the dark, I cued up “Mali Denhou.” As ever, just a few instruments: guitar, percussion, harmonica. As ever, songs about loved ones and Mali. As ever, a guitar that’s shining surface and gleaming chords and a voice from beyond time. But in the dark, I heard more, and it was gorgeous. [To buy the CD of “Mali Denhou” from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Consider Mali. It was once the trading capital of the world — remember Timbuktu? Now it’s 65% desert. Less than half the people are literate; life expectancy is 45. There are assaults by the Taliban. There is drought. Malaria. But there is also some of the planet’s most amazing architecture: mosques made of mud, sandstone villages carved into cliffs. And then there is music — enormously sophisticated music, so sophisticated that it’s hard to believe it’s produced in the world’s fifth poorest country.
See — I mean: listen — for yourself. Late at night, with the lights out, play these:
“Kar Kar Madison” is Traore’s version of the 1960s dance craze, “The Madison.” [For the Amazon MP3 download, click here.]
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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