A living legend nurtures his roots

Boston Globe, September 21, 2005

African music trends come and go. Nigerian Afrobeat and Congolese soukous, lively at home, are currently quiet on the world scene, but Senegalese hip-hop and coupe-decale from Ivory Coast are rising.

Yet amid the flux, the music of Mali never goes out of style. The landlocked nation is home to an age-old sound that can be as austere as its arid landscapes yet seems in a state of constant renaissance.

“There’s so many Malian musicians right now because they’re doing something good,” says the living-legend guitarist and singer Boubacar Traore, who plays the Museum of Fine Arts tonight. He’s referring to a constellation that includes Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure, Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, and more.

“Everywhere in the world, people are listening to Malian music. That’s because we play our tradition. We play our reality.”

Unlike Keita, Traore doesn’t trace his ancestry to the heroic 13th century emperor Sundiata. Nor does Traore come from the griot class the traditional praise singers and keepers of oral history who to this day earn money chanting histories at weddings and funerals. But Traore is something simpler, and perhaps more profound: He’s a son of the soil. Born in 1942 to a rural family, he has made time throughout his career to farm. In 1968, when political changes in Mali curtailed his radio airtime, he quietly returned to the fields. It was there that journalists located him 20 years later living in such complete obscurity most Malians had presumed him dead.

It was the start of a second career for the man who as a youth was both a soccer star and a dabbler in rock ‘n’ roll, smoothing his hair and donning black leather jackets under the desert sun. But in his maturity, Traore has hewn to traditional themes, inhabiting them with the melancholy perspective of a man who has known conflict and heartbreak.

Traore plays guitar in the manner of the kora, the classic West African stringed instrument, plucking with thumb and forefinger to produce elegant rhythmic runs that ache with emotion. In a voice marked with the gravelly tone that comes with a workingman’s life, he delivers unhurried songs whose humane, spiritual themes seep through the language barrier.

On his fifth album, “Kongo Magni,” released in the US last week, Traore plays with a small combo of modern and traditional instruments, including percussion, harmonica, accordion, balafon, and a 5-foot-long fretted instrument called the kamele ngoni. The album’s title, in Mali’s main language, Bambara, is one of those African statements that pack immense meaning into a few simple words.

“It means `Hunger isn’t good,’ ” Traore explains. “When someone is hungry, it isn’t good. Kele magni” a line from the title song ” `War isn’t good.’ When there is war, you can’t farm. Children will die, old women and babies will die. These days war is everywhere. I’m singing that war isn’t good.”

It’s not a protest message. It’s an observation, from the perspective of an African elder who saw five of his 11 children die and who lost his wife in childbirth. Emotionally devastated so much that he suspended his comeback to go work manual labor in France he eventually turned grief to inspiration. A song for his wife, “Je chanterai pour toi,” lent its title to “I’ll Sing for You,” a 2004 documentary on Traore that the MFA screens tonight and tomorrow.

All this has earned Traore the label of bluesman, less for the structure and sound of his music (though on several new songs, accompanied by the harmonica, he teases the boundaries) than for its content and feeling. It also gives him a distinct take on the catastrophe that recently befell New Orleans, America’s own cradle of the blues an area he has come to know, as Malian musicians frequently visit the city.

“You know, we are believers,” Traore offers. “And when things like this [hurricane] happen, we say it’s God who made them. You offer blessings for those who have died. But there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. Events happen, and we can never know.”

Traore’s own story shows that destiny is full of twists and turns, not all of them for the worse. The loss, the sadness, and the years of village exile have shaped an artist who combines the gravitas of age with a younger musician’s curiosity and drive.

“You have to keep changing things and work with instruments you’ve never played with,” Traore says. He’s teamed with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and says he’d like to play with an American blues musician some day. (He won’t say who.) What won’t change is the philosophic outlook on life of a man who has taken care all his life to nurture his roots literally, by tending the soil.

“I have a field and I have sheep,” Traore says. “I’ve been a farmer since my birth. Everywhere I go, I cultivate the earth.”