It’s easy to overstate the connection between the blues and Malian music. Guitar-toting fellows like Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum and Lobi Traoré not only sound a little like bluesmen, they’ve often appeared in their company. In the mid-’90s, Traoré enjoyed Touré’s patronage, and he subsequently recorded on Damon Albarn’s Mali Music album and with European blues enthusiasts. But on the strength of this posthumous release -- which was recorded in two separate sessions a few years before his unexplained demise in 2010 -- his rhythmic conception was rooted in Bambara culture and the blues guitarist who most strongly influenced his playing was Jimi Hendrix.
The first session, which was tracked at a club in Bamako called Espace Acadmie, sounds like it’s tooled more for African than American ears. The bassist will not be rushed; he sounds like he learned his licks from reggae records, and even his solos are cushioned with spacious rests. The trap drummer defers to the djembe and balafon, whose restless percolations push well ahead of the beat. On the second session, made a year later at a disused open-air venue (which reportedly got shut down after a copulating couple fell out of a tree and landed on a dancer -- apparently Malian celebrants don’t let Islamic proscriptions from drinking alcohol get in the way of having a good time), a second guitarist takes over for the balafon, chipping out short lilting figures that orbit around the choppy drumbeats.
Although both are clearly live recordings, I suspect that neither was done in front of an audience; there’s no clapping or hollering, and I can’t imagine that Traoré’s playing would have escaped comment from anyone out for a good time. His singing and his guitar rhythms are terse and galvanic, but his solos jump out with an alpha-male savagery that is as close as this music gets to the brawny posturing of contemporary blues. But, like Hendrix, he leavens machismo with an appealing decadence; Traoré’s tone is raw and pulpy, and while his notes decay with a lingering growl they also curl like lasciviously entwined limbs. Sometimes he fits his forays into the polyrhythms, but he can also cut his playing loose from the other musicians and suspend licks over them that writhe and thrust (much like that unfortunate couple might have done). But Traoré’s not one to crash, let alone bring down a dancer.
While Bwati Kono testifies to Traoré’s indisputable gifts, it suffers from shoddy presentation. The cover is as ugly as a bar fighter’s crooked nose, and while the tracklist names nine tunes, the CD has 12; the aforementioned nine, two five-second selections of silence, and one more un-named song. But maybe that’s fitting, given the rough venues in which Traoré spent his professional life and the paucity of information about his death.