BOUBACAR TRAORé performing as part of the BLUES & BBQ FESTIVAL at Harbourfront Centre's Norigen Stage (235 Queen's Quay West), Sunday (July 8), 3:30 pm. Free. Also, The Blues Guitar From Mali To Mississippi, featuring BOUBACAR TRAORÉ and SUPER CHIKAN at Harbourfront's Lakeside Terrace, Saturday (July 7), 7 pm. Free. 416-973-3000.
considering that malian guitar maestro Boubacar "Kar Kar" Traoré doesn't think of himself as a blues player, Harbourfront Centre's Blues & BBQ Festival (Friday to Sunday, July 6-8) may not be the most appropriate venue for his entrancing music. But Traoré is too thrilled to be back playing in front of appreciative crowds to quibble about labels. Up until his rediscovery 14 years ago, the once celebrated West African pop sensation, who'd had dance floors from Bamako to Timbuktu rocking with his Mali Twist and Kar Kar Madison during the early 60s, had dropped so far off the radar that even people who'd known him were sure he was dead.
In reality, the disillusioned Traoré had moved back to his home village of Kayes in western Mali once it sank in that signing autographs for screaming teens wasn't going to feed his wife and six kids.
Yet while Traoré toiled in obscurity as a tailor and day labourer for much of the next two decades, he never lost hope that he'd eventually return to his first love.
"During those years when the public at large thought I was dead," recalls Traoré quietly through a translator, "I would come home from work each day and look at my guitar in the closet. Even though it sat there still, just seeing it would fill me with happiness and make me feel proud.
"There was never a moment when I thought that I would never play it again. The guitar is part of who I am."
The guitar first became an essential part of Traoré's identity back in 57, after he secretly began plucking on an older brother's instrument whenever he got the chance to sneak a tweak.
One day, the older sibling came home unexpectedly to hear the young prodigy playing guitar, only he was more stunned at what he heard than annoyed.
"He asked me how I learned to play the Manding double chord of the great kora masters on the guitar. When I told him that no one had taught me, it just came to my fingers, he was amazed.
""I've been teaching guitar for eight years and I can't do that,' he said. "You must play the guitar. One day, you'll be famous because you can play things that nobody else can.'"
That mesmerizing finger-picking technique is evident on Traoré's brilliant new album, Maciré (Indigo), although it's used with more restraint.
Whereas prior recordings released since his 90s comeback have largely been showcases for his bluesy string-bending skill, the darkly personal Maciré reveals his depth as a composer and arranger in a seven-piece band setting. It's a fabulously soulful acoustic set that finds a way to make the traditional balafon, djembé, n'goni, calabash, violin and guitar sounds contemporary without having to resort to synthesizer and programmed drum embellishments.
Right now, Traoré could be one collaboration away from the sort of breakthrough his countryman Ali Farka Toure scored with Ry Cooder.
"It's very important in the creative process to play with other musicians. And, of course, while I'm aware it was working with Ry Cooder that thrust Ali Farka Toure onto the world stage, to me it's the musical interaction that's most important. At the end of July, I'll begin a collaboration with Bill Frisell that we plan to present in October.
"Back when Ali Farka Toure and I began making music," ponders Traoré aloud, "no one could've dreamed that the two of us from Mali would be taking our music around the world, but it's happening -- that is something which God has wished."