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Boubacar Traore

A gorgeous evening of African desert blues, transforming a staid museum auditorium into an intimate, sweet soul cafe.

Boubacar Traore (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

Boubacar Traore (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

In the last sentence of the merely-five-sentence-long program notes offered at Boubacar Traore’s concert at the the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the African singer is described as “one of the most pivotal figures in the African desert blues tradition.”  This write-up didn’t provide all that much of a clue about what was to come. In addition, the evening concert was billed as just “Boubacar Traore,” and although the music was predominantly his, the performance was the product of a trio of musicians – Boubacar Traore on guitar, Vincent Bucher on harmonica and Alassane Samake on calabash – whose playing was seamlessly of a piece, organically whole.

Traore came on the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium stage without any particular fanfare, accompanied by his two colleagues; he listened briefly to the applause that greeted him, approached the microphone, said simply, “Mesdames et Messieurs, bonsoir,” smiled and began playing.

Over the course of the no-intermission 90 minute concert, Traore sang twelve songs. No between-the-songs patter, just an occasional, “Thank you.” But virtually immediately he managed to make the big, stiff museum auditorium into an intimate night-time cafe, a cozy, boite, maybe even someone’s comfy living room, or a back porch. The audience sat in the straight concert hall rows, heads bobbing and small-seat swaying, in happy thrall; some mouthed the lyrics to Traore’s songs, and in the last two songs, the whole audience did sing along on the choruses.

For those who could not understand the lyrics of Traore’s songs – he sang in Mali’s French – each song was an experience of four interconnected musical sounds: the calabash thump and click rhythms, the harmonica, the amplified acoustic guitar, and Traore’s voice. The songs’ lyrics – love songs, folk tales, celebrations, imprecations – added particular locations and stories to what, all together, was a full, rich exploration of human experience through the lens of the blues, of hard-won wisdom and infinite empathy for joy and anguish, for hope and despair.

Alassane Samake, Boubacar Traore and Vincent Bucher (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

Alassane Samake, Boubacar Traore and Vincent Bucher (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

Traore’s voice is itself a miracle of rich, earthy musical sound. Whether he is whispering, proclaiming from rooftops, flirting, making love, mourning, praying or celebrating, his singing is quite simply an extension of his soul. Traore is an old man now, and his voice is an old voice; there are no virtuosic vocal twists or surprises, but there is also no story, no emotion, no psychological shift he can’t convey.

Traore’s guitar playing evokes American blues from Chicago to New Orleans, but its oxygen is African.

Parts of his technique derive from the kora, the traditional 21-string notched-bridge harp common to most of West Africa; another influence was his older brother, who lived and taught guitar in Cuba, and encouraged Boubacar to keep on playing on his own. Traore’s picking and strumming is river music, half Niger and half Mississippi. And the rhythms – nuzzled, encouraged and teased  – by the calabash are African, too, rooted in centuries of music making that has traveled from Africa to the Caribbean and back.

To this heady world music mix, this combination of indigenous folk and modern transnational traditions, the harmonica is added, and in Bucher’s hands, this instrument is a metamorphosis tool. Bucher’s harmonica seems sometimes like a singing human voice, or true mouth organ; at other moments, the harmonica sounds like an accordion or, improbably, a violin or viola. Bucher is a Frenchman; he gives both American and African blues rhythms a European accent, incorporating equally the weariness and the insistence of centuries of sedition.

Periodically during the concert, Traore hung back, maintaining a constantly delicate and complicated guitar continuo, to let Bucher play extended “solos,” to breathe out Traore’s songs on the harmonica. These were as brilliant as Traore’s solos, and equally applauded.

Alassane Samake, Boubacar Traore and Vincent Bucher (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

Alassane Samake, Boubacar Traore and Vincent Bucher (Photo credit: Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos)

This concert, part of MetLive Arts, was presented in collaboration with the World Music Institute. Founded in 1985 “to showcase many styles of world music” (http://www.worldmusicinstitute.org/history), WMI accomplishes much more than this. Presenting artists such as Boubacar Traore and spotlighting cultural and musical traditions from all over the world, this now complex not-for-profit organization provides audiences and artists alike the opportunity to examine core questions about the performing arts, creativity and human nature.

The music of Boubacar Traore lives right at the intersection of cultural tradition and individual musical innovation. His career – the story of success, suppression, tragedy and improbable renascence – his rich voice and his gracious artistic presence in performance all exemplify creativity’s urgent persistence, no matter what the odds.  The World Music Institute sheds light on the ways in which human universalities are revealed through the gifts and contributions of individual artists. Traore gives us Mali, but he also offers us an affirmation of humanity that transcends political boundaries.

In this twenty-first century, modern technology has speeded up the cross pollination of cultures and traditions. Boubacar Traore exemplifies these contemporary artistic developments, but his music also recalls and encapsulates an entire stream of music history that was produced by five centuries of imperialism, colonialism, revolution and the global travel of artistic inspiration along the trade routes of slavery and material goods. And for each single historical movement, there are uncountable human stories … such as artists like Traore tell.

At one level, the Traore-Bucher-Samake concert was wonderful because it made you lighthearted, and leaving the auditorium afterwards – exiting back out through ancient Egypt – was more a matter of dancing than walking. But at another level, it was wonderful simply because there’s no more tender, timeless form of wisdom than desert blues.

Boubacar Traore (December 2, 2016)

MetLive Arts and World Music Institute

Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

1000 Fifth Avenue at 83rd Street, in Manhattan

For more information: visit  http://www.worldmusicinstitute.org/history or http://www.allmusic.com/artist/boubacar-traor%C3%A9-mn0000093128/biography

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (95 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about choral and classical music for fifteen years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Most recently she has lectured on the history of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York and on the African-American experience within the Episcopal Church at conferences of the New York State Historical Association and the National Association of Episcopal Historians and Archivists. Terepka is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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