When singer/guitarist/songwriter/bandleader Lobi Traore of Mali died suddenly at age 49 in Bamako in June, 2010, he had 7 or 8 CDs on the international market. But none of them fully captures the raw magic of his driving electric band, a mainstay of Bamako’s after-hours nightlife for over two decades. The closest is The Lobi Traore Group (Honest Jons, 2005), an impressive live session, but one that blurs the focus by featuring other singers and guitar soloists, and that bypasses the fabulous, slow, smoldering side of Lobi’s repertoire in favor of his most cranked-up material.
This session, recorded in two live sessions on consecutive nights in unglamorous Bamako night spots, is the CD Lobi’s home crowd has awaited. The recording has grit and muscle, despite inevitable amplifier hum and other idiosyncrasies of recording “in the club.” The bottom line is: this is pure Lobi. All the essentials of the night-prowling, guitar-wielding roots man are present and shining. Start with his signature electric guitar sound. From track one, “Makono (Wait),” Lobi tames the surge of his slamming band with his clipped, efficient riffing. Lobi’s sound—a combination of fuzzbox and flanger pedals and a unique finger-style picking technique—blurts out phrases in response to his keening vocal, then explodes into juicy bursts when he solos, which happily, he does often in these 10 leisurely tracks.
The slow songs are often the most rewarding, like the aching, one-chord, John Lee Hooker-esque “Ya Time,” which lasts over ten minutes, and concludes with an extended guitar solo that ranges from soaring to reflective. Or “Maya Gasi Ka Bon,” a staple of Lobi’s show with room for incendiary guitar theatrics. A live excerpt of an older performance of this song appears on a CD I produced called In Griot Time, String Music from Mali (Stern’s 2000). Lobi then called the song “Maby Djoudon Don,” and though my recording was rougher, the guitar blowout Lobi delivers there inspired many to seek him out in Bamako. It’s great to find the complete song so finely rendered for the record on this CD.
Then there’s Lobi the singer/songwriter. Hearing him sing from the low, dry end of his range up to its full keening wail, you might imagine Lobi a Bamako bad boy, recounting exploits like the old bluesmen whose echoes mysteriously pervade his sound and songs. (Lobi certainly absorbed his share of blues and rock, but his own Bambara roots also contain deep DNA that went into the very formation of those American genres—hence the mystery!) In fact, Lobi was quite a sober, serious fellow, and his songs mostly council wisdom, caution, respect for elders and tradition, and the need for cooperation among members of society.
The loping, 12/8 groove and major pentatonic scale of “Saya” suggest a sunny mood, but Lobi’s vocal conveys a hint of heartbreak. And prescience. The lyrics say “Death spares no one.” To hear the energy and life in these performances, it is difficult to imagine that Lobi himself was nearing his own appointment with destiny. On the song “Banan Ni,” he makes a plea for social tolerance—“Everybody has his own love. One should not interfere with another’s private life.” During the solo on this song, Lobi achieves Hendrix-like depth of expression. It makes you wish Jimi could have heard the guy. One might dare imagine that they’re jamming together right now, in Heaven.