A Posthumous Desert Blues Classic
Malian desert blues guitar powerhouse Lobi Traore died suddenly, under a cloud of mystery in the spring of 2010, a year short of fifty. Tragically, he’s destined for greater popularity now than when he was alive. Recorded in his native Bamako, his posthumous live concert album Bwati Kono was probably never intended for release, but it’s a good thing that the specialty label Kanaga System Krush put it out. A methodical, uncannily terse player, Traore’s signature style falls somewhere between the precisely meandering, subtly dynamic crescendos of Ali Farka Toure and the feral hammer-on assault of Vieux Farka Toure, with a more rhythmic, casually insistent, sometimes staccato attack and a tone that often oscillates woozily through an open wah pedal. Traore didn’t sing much: the vocal numbers here have a quick verse at the beginning and sometimes the end, nothing more. The band here is particularly excellent, including drums, percussion, balafon (west African vibraphone), rhythm guitar and a melodic bass player who gets some solo space and makes the most of it. Almost all the songs here all have surprise, cold endings, a device that works even better than Traore may have conceived: it allows the tracks to end without any crowd noise!
With its roaring, ringing central hook, Bi Donga Fi Ko is the best track here – a Malian take on Voodoo Chile, perhaps. Traore’s solo veers from jaggedly incisive to a menacing, noisy swirl, then steals a page out of the Edge’s EFX book, adding slapback reverb to the wah so that he sounds like two guitars. This is jamband music par excellence; here, Traore manages to be reckless and elegant all at once as he finally backs out of the song and the band follows slowly behind him. Another real scorcher, the ominous 6/8 anthem Ya Time sounds like a desert blues version of a slowly burning Little Milton tune from the late 60s, with the album’s most surrealistically volcanic Hendrix-influenced playing. The steady, shuffling opening track, Makono is also a gem, Traore sailing bluesily downward before resuming his staccato pulse, spaciously placing his accents or hammering on a pedal note over simmering, bubbling bass. Banan Ni, the second cut, is a riff-driven three-chord number set to a thinly disguised reggae riddim – when they break it down to a bass-and-percussion interlude, it’s impossible not to think of Band of Gypsys, especially when the bassist starts playing a call-and-response tune. Likewise, the ten-minute Maya Gasi Ka Bon sets long guitar and balafon solos over a slow, syncopated reggae pulse.
Saya, which has the two guitars but no balafon, works intricately interwoven guitar lines to a casually wailing Traore solo rising high over the low, distorted growl of the bass. A couple more one-chord jams utilize a camelwalk triplet groove; another is a clever round between the two guitarists. There’s also an untitled bonus track which perhaps because it was new to the band, has the loosest feel of any cut here – and by the end, Traore’s guitar is way out of tune. All things considered, this is a classic of desert blues; if you’re into electric guitar and/or stoner music, it’s a great listen.