The premature and unexpected death of Malian guitarist Lobi Traoré in June tragically robbed world music of one of its most exciting talents. Having broken through internationally in the early ’90s, and at just 49 years of age, Traoré undoubtedly had much more music to offer. Steeped in the Bambara music of the Segu region of Mali, Traoré had a natural, unforced command of the guitar and a deep understanding of musical tradition. Often played on pentatonic instruments, this rich, sonorous music has much in common with American blues.
Traoré will remain best known for his vibrant ensembles and international collaborations with the likes of Bonnie Raitt. Rainy Season Blues may well have been intended as the first of many solo albums. Apparently captured hastily in brief moments of free time during group sessions, it sounds urgent, personal and intimate. Traoré’s raw, attacking guitar sound and slightly gravelly voice are reminiscent of the great Delta bluesmen, with hints of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker particularly. Traoré himself would without doubt have emphasised the distinctively Malian nature of his music. This album casts clear light on the connections between Malian music and the American blues tradition.
The most immediately striking characteristic of Rainy Season Blues is its extraordinary sound; a combination of acoustic guitar and vocals, in which the voice and guitar twist around each other, integrating beautifully. His guitar rattles and snaps with energy and confidence, whilst his voice is bathed in a modest, appropriate amount of warm reverberation. As a solo performance, Rainy Season Blues is necessarily minimal and direct – but it could hardly be called unsophisticated. The songs here are both rhythmically and melodically compelling, with Traoré both repeating and developing powerful, haunting phrases. The gently propulsive opener Moko Ti Y Lamban Don is typical, with Traoré neatly placing his vocal in the spaces within his guitar patterns.
Rainy Season Blues suggests that Traoré was moving towards a new level of musicianship. His voice always sounded distinctive – here it is penetrating but also empathetic and reflective. On Djougouya Magni, he brilliantly squeezes in as many words as possible, operating in a space somewhere between singing and speaking. He can really project where necessary, cutting through his guitar playing with unpredictable force. Without the support of a joyful rhythm section, the performances here have a deeper emotional clarity – one that transcends any language barrier.
Whilst Traoré mostly used the guitar as a melodic and thematic instrument, he was also interested in texture and space. Siguidialen provides one of the album’s most unexpected moments as Traoré strums a solitary guitar chord with surprising aggression and insistence. On Melodie de Bambara Blues, he leaves more spaces and tiny silences. Cumulatively, they offer a vivid sense of place and time, and a feeling of honesty and understanding.
Traoré evidently also had tremendous dynamic range and control, both as a singer and as a guitarist. The songs on Rainy Season Blues are articulate and delivered with genuine commitment and integrity. On Hine, Traoré resembles the late Ali Farka Touré in the way he intones over a repeating ostinato guitar figure. The tragedy of Rainy Season Blues is that it suggests that Touré might have continued to produce a catalogue of music every bit as prolific and significant as the great master. Whilst Traoré’s growth and progression may have been prematurely curtailed, this excellent album at least offers a clear and convincing sense of his talent.