The legendary Malian blues guitarist and singer Boubacar “Kar Kar” Traoré at The Bell House (NY)

Date: September 27, 2011
Venue: Bell House (Brooklyn, NY)

Concert review by Chris Arnold

This past Tuesday Brooklyn was blessed with a very special visitor: the legendary Malian guitarist and singer Boubacar “Kar Kar” Traoré. With long-time friends percussionist Madieye Niang playing a simple upturned gourd and French harmonica player Vincent Bucher, Traoré laid down a mellow yet infectious groove for about 90 minutes at the Gowanus club The Bell House.

From the town of Kayes in the Kassonké region northeast of Bamako near the Senegalese border, self-taught Traoré is credited as the first person to play Mandingo-based music on electric guitar; although for this show he stuck exclusively to the same steel-string acoustic for the duration. What was immediately striking was the lightness of his technique, as if the delicate, ethereal tone of the kora could be transposed to a guitar without losing the forward drive of the blues. Here was a gentle master completely in command and confidently placing his virtuosity in service of the beauty and clarity of his music. It goes without saying that like most blues and African music, the rhythmic interactions between the instruments were complex and exciting, but what really stood out and set him apart from other blues men- both Malian and American- was the transcendent beauty of his songs. When Niang took a brief break early in the set to allow Traoré and Bucher to play a ballad, Traoré took the Malian griot singing tradition to a new height.

Perfectly accompanied by Bucher and Niang, the instruments, including Traoré’s voice, melded together into something bigger than the component parts. Solos were always understated and integral without the usual pseudo-jazz egotistical extended solo grand-standing. Here was a communitarian tradition of musical creation and expression perfectly realized in a modern context. For 90 minutes in an out-of-the-way club in a quiet, industrial corner of Brooklyn, music really mattered again.

Traoré is currently touring the U.S. and Canada in support of his new album Mali Denhou recorded at Salif Keita’s Studio Moffou on the outskirts of Bamako.