Boubacar Traoré at Hugh’s Room
4 October 2011 No CommentsBy Anya Wassenberg
If you weren’t at Hugh’s Room in Toronto’s West End last night, you missed what had to be the hottest ticket in town. On a cool, rainy Monday night, the place was packed to standing room only and organizers had to turn over a hundred people away, all of us eager to hear the sweet Malian blues of guitarist Boubacar Traoré.
He hit town as part of a North American tour that has hit New York City, Chicago and Montreal along with Toronto, and there was a lot of anticipation in the room. He had the big crowd easily in the palm of his hand from the moment his nimble fingers began to play, backed up by a stellar harmonica player and percussionist who added harmony vocals now and then. The music was seductive and deceptively simple sounding, belying the complex rhythms and harmonies.
His voice is gentle rather than strident, ranging from a soft velvet hum to a more insistent tone. He wraps it around the melodies with the practised ease of a veteran. Those fingers coaxed a clean, golden tone from his guitar, and the generous musician let the harmonica have most of the flashy solos, settling for the hypnotic guitar patterns and a little dancing on the stage. The enthusiastic house burst into loud applause at every break between songs and he’d flash a delighted grin, almost as if he was surprised at the reaction.
Boubacar’s story is a unique one. As a child he would sneak into his older brothers’s room – a music teacher who’d studied in Cuba – and play kora riffs on his expensive guitar. Completely self taught, he amazed his brother and the rest of his family when they finally caught on and went on to fame with recordings made back in the early days of Mali’s independence. He sang about working for their new freedom and his tunes were played on the radio daily.
Political unrest put an end to his early success, and the tragic death of his wife left him with six children to support. He ended up as a migrant labourer in France, working in construction, but fate wouldn’t let his light die out. A European record producer discovered a tape of one of his performances, found him and signed him to a record deal. His first album was finally recorded in 1990, and he’s enjoyed international success since then, counting people like Justin Adams, Robert Plant’s guitarist, and Bill Frisell among his fans.
He’s touring now to support his latest release, Mali Denhou, his first studio album in six years. It was recorded at fellow Malian superstar Salif Keita’s studio, one that’s been specifically designed for acoustic projects. His music takes from the Mandingo traditions and adds West African pop from the golden era of decades ago. He sings his gentle and plaintive songs about love and loss and his beloved Mali, and spends most of his time off the road with his children and grandchildren.
There was no room to dance, but it was hard to sit still. After two generous sets, he left the stage to the standing ovation of an audience captivated by his unique playing style, infectious grin and ego-less charm.