ONE OF MALI’S MOST HARD-ROCKING GUITARISTS, LOBI Traoré, died suddenly at 49 in Bamako this past June. Traoré was a soulful singer and master fingerpicker on acoustic and electric who could haunt listeners with rootsy balladry or cut forth with brash and edgy electric solos. Lobi had earned the admiration of connoisseurs from Bonnie Raitt to Damon Albarn, and was about to release his ninth and tenth albums: the career-topping electric live set Bwati Kono [Kanaga System Krush] and the magically spare solo acoustic session Rainy Season Blues [Glitterhouse]. Traoré was also making plans to finally bring his blazing Bamako club band to American rock, blues, and world music stages. A singular and totally original stylist, Traoré has much to teach about playing with sincerity, precision, and unbridled passion.
Born Ibrahima Traoré in the Segou region of Mali—center of the 19th Century Bambara Empire—Lobi started playing guitar at 15 on an instrument given to him by a bandleader who recognized his musicality. “It was an acoustic guitar and its neck was all twisted,” he recalled, “But I managed.” Traoré’s first gig was in a wedding band that played mostly Mande music, with its melodious heptatonic repertoire. But at home, he was working out his own way of playing Bambara songs, which mostly use the minor pentatonic scale and more aggressive rhythms.
“I didn’t have any teachers,” said Traoré in 1996. “I just listened and played. So I consider my style to be my own.” Traoré was handy with a flatpick, but even on electric he mostly played fingerstyle, in the Malian way, all thumb and forefinger. Traoré’s riffs centered on low lines that he punched out with a straight, strong, and very busy thumb. His forefinger might play melody, or sometimes just an occasional drone on the high-E string, while his thumb filled in with melodic and rhythmic action on lower strings. His attack was ferocious, part of the reason he could get his signature sound pretty much no matter what guitar or amp he was using. Traoré favored a Strat-style guitar, though often had to settle for an imitation.
Traoré’s electric tone was pinched, nasal, heavily flanged, and always edging towards a growly, sustained distortion— often gloriously intensified with a fuzz pedal during the crescendos of his longer solos. Mostly, his solos shifted between short, explosive bursts of notes and strong, simple, repeating phrases. Sometimes he set up call-and-response figures and rocked back and forth between them while percussion flailed, bass bubbled, and drums percolated. Traoré’s tone might have been rocking and gnarly, but his ideas and phrasing were deeply African, first and foremost about rhythmic play and attitude.
Bonnie Raitt heard Traoré during a musical excursion to Mali in 2000. “He got me from the first time I heard him,” she recalled. “What I love about Lobi’s playing is how hypnotic, bluesy, and emotional it is—absolutely his own style, but in direct line with the deep, modal Delta blues I love. He was a rising star, carrying on the soulful, improvisational style of Ali Farka Touré and John Lee Hooker.”
When Traoré began recording for the Malian and European markets in the late ’80s and early ’90s, his producers encouraged him to embrace the “Bambara blues” tag. Ali Farka Touré was enjoying success as an “African bluesman,” but Bambara music, with its minor pentatonic tonality, rough vocal aesthetic, and driving rhythms, sounds even closer to blues. “Before I even knew I would become a musician I listened to a lot of blues, especially John Lee Hooker, and I may have been inspired by that,” says Traoré. “Maybe the blues was inspired by African music, or maybe the resemblance is just coincidental.” Traoré adored Touré, Hooker, Santana, and even AC/DC’s Angus Young—but his goal was never to imitate anyone. “For me, the music I play comes from my place,” he said. “Someone who hears my music and says it’s the blues; well, to me ‘blues’ is American music. We don’t even have that word.”
Traore’s early international CDs presented him in genteel, acoustic settings. Dutch blues-rocker Joep Pelt attended a Traoré show in Mali in 2004, expecting the “timid acoustic guy” he knew from those CDs. “I was amazed by his performance,” said Pelt. “Here was this fantastic, outgoing electric guitar player.” Pelt returned a year later to record an album with Traoré. “To me, Lobi is a performing artist. He needs an audience. I wanted the recording to sound like a live band, so when he was playing a solo, we would be jumping and head banging, and he would respond to that.” The result, I Yougoba, does rock, although Pelt substituted drummers to get straightahead rock grooves, and so sacrificed some of the squirrel-y rhythmic idiosyncrasies of Lobi’s own band. “Joep plays like a European,” said Traore. “I play African folklore. The rehearsals were very difficult. But it worked. We had a good feeling in the end.”
The Lobi Traoré Group provides a fine introduction to Traore’s trademark live electric sound. Guitarist and producer Chris Ekman, another American rocker smitten by Traore, calls it “one of the essential Malian albums … full-stop energy that gives perfect form to the polyrhythmic chaos and bustle of Bama … scratchy, caterwauling, and blissfully shambolic.” Even better is the new Bwati Kono, which means “in the club,” a truly fiery live set recorded in a Bamako club. Backed by his well-oiled ensemble and featuring dense percussion, a second guitar, and a wooden balafon, Traore tears through a set of 11 songs, taking some of his longest and most exciting solos ever caught on tape.
Eckman engineered Traore’s final recording, Rainy Season Blues, an unadorned solo guitar and vocal set taped in a single session with no overdubs. Traore said in one of his last interviews: “I sleep with my guitar. I even take it to the bathroom, in case someone wants to steal it from me. I fell in love with the guitar like you do with a woman.” Rainy Season Blues shows the result of his dedication and hard work. Traore’s last set contains extraordinarily nuanced and elegant guitar work, and because he plays alone, you can hear every note, every accent, and every sly rhythmic twist. It stands as a poignant parting gift to guitar players everywhere.