Hard to believe it’s been six years since Boubacar Traore’s quietly stunning Kongo Magni CD was released, but Kar Kar (as Traore is affectionately known) knows what it’s like to be entirely away from music for a considerably lengthier spell. From 1968 to 1987, Traore was a farmer and shopkeeper after a military takeover in Mali when the government banned his uplifting post-independence songs. Prior, he’d been Mali’s original Mandingo blues man and a figure of rock star status. And though his return was tragically halted when his wife died in childbirth, he’s been getting his mojo back since recording his first full-length album in 1990.
The music of his latest, Mali Denhou, has the same pensive, contemplative air as Traore’s far-off gaze in the cover photo. Opening track “M’Badehou” features Kar Kar’s gloriously weathered voice and supple acoustic guitar backed only by the harmonica of Vincent Bucher and Madieye Niang on calabash, and that’s everything necessary to set a tone that’s unfailingly laid back while still unmistakably restless and vital. Bucher’s playing throughout the album underlines the blues aspect just as much as Kar Kar’s melancholically loping riffs and sagely singing. The addition of Fassery Diabate’s balafon and Mahamadou Kamissoko’s ngoni lute adds brightness to several tracks that keeps the mood from unrelenting heaviness.
There’s also a lighter touch to such songs as “Minuit,” a chipper tune about nocturnal spirits that’s almost childlike, and “N’Dianamogo,” on which Bucher tempers the insistent rhythm with his playful harmonica virtuosity. Apart from the melody of “Minuit,” the compositions are all Traore’s. Yet the entirely acoustic songs smack of tradition, filled with themes of relationships, respect, family life and paying tribute to those who do great things. Traore clearly merits the same sort of kudos for making music so grand – simple in style but reaching the heart and spirit with a magnificence that’s felt in every note. A very welcome return.