Lobi Traoré (1961-2010) was a true African original, a guitarist of profound depth and originality, a singer and songwriter with universal appeal, and a performer who became part of the very fabric of Bamako, one of the world’s most musical cities. Not long before he died—suddenly and unexpectedly in June, 2010—Lobi recorded an unprecedented solo CD—just him and his guitar, in a single session with no overdubs. Rainy Season Blues turns out to be Lobi’s final statement, and we are lucky to have it, for it captures the pure essence of his artistry in full flower.
Lobi was born Ibrahima Traore, in Bakaridjana in the Segou region of Mali, the center of the 19th century Bambara Empire. Lobi recalled, “A Muslim teacher came to my village to see my father, who was a great marabou. He came for his business, but he had an acoustic guitar, and I became very interested in it.” It would be a few years before Lobi got his hands on an axe, but the seed had been planted. Lobi’s first gig was playing maracas in a neighborhood band. “Right from the first time they said it was good,” he recalled, “I had music in my blood.” He went on to play timbales with a wedding band from Bamako, but spent so much time borrowing a guitar to practice with that the bandleader bought him one of his own, later reimbursing himself out of Lobi’s future pay. “It was an acoustic guitar and its neck was all twisted,” Lobi recalled, “but I managed.”
From his earliest days, Lobi was an avid rock and blues fan who listened to players from John Lee Hooker to ACDC’s Angus Young. This history combined with the fact that he started out as a percussionist says a lot about the expressive, highly rhythmic, and transcendently bluesy guitar style Lobi went on to develop.
The wedding band he played in specialized in Manding music, melodious, heptatonic praise songs drawing from an old standard repertoire. “I didn’t really understand Manding music,” said Lobi. “I come from the inspiration of Bambara music. At home, when I’d take up my little guitar, I would play what I sing. In the beginning, it wasn’t any good, but little by little it got better. I started to understand pentatonic melodies on the guitar. So when we went with this band to play at weddings, often I would ask if I could do a Bambara song. I would take the guitar and play a song, and everyone was happy with it. In the end, they would always ask for these songs. “Play a Bambara song!” they would shout.”
This led to Lobi’s debut on Malian national radio, his first recordings, and his recruitment by a band from Abidjan, where he spent the next seven years refining his art. Lobi returned to Bamako and his lifelong tenure in the city’s late-night bars and clubs—Bar Bozo, Makelekele, The Djembe, Espace Academie, and others. In a city where most people enjoy their music at weddings and concerts and do not drink alcohol, the clubs where Lobi played were frequented by working class couples keen for a night of dancing. Lobi also drew fans of the more earthy African electric music music, and no doubt, a few more unsavory types as well. It was all part of the gritty ambiance of Lobi’s pungent, late night sessions in Bamako.
Lobi became a skilled songwriter specializing in exhortations to party, or celebrations of love., but many of his lyrics delivered keen social messages applicable to the daily lives of his fans as well. Discussing some of his most beloved early compositions back in 1996, Lobi said, “In ‘Dene Kele,’ I talk about property, and the people who sell food in the street. I tell them, ‘You must sell proper food. You must not sell bad food that will make people sick when they eat it.’ Then there is ‘Nama Da Yele.’ That one says that there are people all over Africa whose daughter likes a boy and they prevent the girl from seeing the one she loves. The two are in love and they want to be together. So the song says, ‘If you don’t open the door, I will enter by the window. I will pursue my love.’ I advise parents that if they protect their daughters too much, they will drive them to rebel.”
When Lobi’s first cassette Bambara Blues appeared in 1989, things began to take off. Lobi had mixed feelings about the “blues” tag. “I listened to a lot of blues,” he said, “Especially John Lee Hooker. Maybe I was inspired by that. Maybe the blues was inspired by Africa. Maybe the resemblance is just a coincidence. But listen, for me the music I play comes from me, from my place. Someone who hears my music and says it’s the blues, well, to me blues is American music. We don’t even have that word. Each place has its arts. It wasn’t me who came up with the idea of Bambara blues. People kept saying, ‘Bambara blues, Bambara blues.’ In the end, I accepted it. But I don’t think the blues is our music.”
In 1990, Lobi was invited to perform with an acoustic trio at the Africolor festival in France, and this became an annual ritual. He returned to Abdijan for the MASA festival where he played electric with a group of percussionists—“modern traditional music” as he called it. Lobi recorded three CD releases for the Cobalt label: Bamako (1994), Segou (1996), and Duga (1999). But there was a schism in Lobi’s musical persona during these years. His international releases presented a toned-down, acoustic side of his music, while his club dates in Bamako became ever more wild, raw, and raucous. Subsequent CD releases like The Lobi Traore Group (Honest Jon, 2005) did capture the more unbridled, rocking side of Lobi’s chameleon musical persona. But all of it is Lobi, an artist with many faces.
Lobi sought to dignify a profession that many Africans still view as dubious. “I believe that music is legitimate work,” he said. “Not everyone can be a bureaucrat or businessman. I’ve chosen music as the way I express myself. It’s all I know in life. If there are things wrong with what I do, I hope people tell me. I need criticism. If there’s a way I can improve my music, I want to do it.”
The fruit of that attitude, and Lobi’s rich and varied experiences are abundantly evident on Rainy Season Blues. In his final years, Lobi was driven to record and to demonstrate how he had grown as a musician. Producer and guitarist Chris Eckman had returned to Bamako to record the Tuareg desert rock band Tamikrest, but Lobi more or less demanded a hearing. When it became clear that a full band recording would not be possible right away, Lobi turned up with just his guitar, and recorded this remarkable set of ten songs, new and old.
Thank God he did! The session offers a magnificently lucid record of Lobi’s core talent. His playing has never sounded cleaner, fresher or more nuanced. No guitarist alive phrases the way Lobi does, and to hear him unaccompanied like this is a treat not found on any of his other nine albums. Lobi’s voice shows all its colors, from a soothing half-whisper to a world-weary growl, to keening melodic power vocal.
Among those who will be grateful for Rainy Season Blues is Bonnie Raitt, who heard and jammed with Lobi during a trip to Mali in 2000. “What I love about Lobi’s playing,” recalled Raitt, “is how hypnotic, bluesy and emotional it is. He got me from the first time i heard him—absolutely his own style, but in direct line with the deep, modal Delta blues I love. He was a rising star, carrying on the soulful, improvisational style of Ali Farka and John Lee Hooker, but adding his own innovations on the electric guitar. He was also wonderful man, beloved by so many and it’s a terrible loss he was taken so soon. I’m honored to have had the chance to know and play with him.” And we are all honored that Lobi left with this singularly intimate and deep recording.