Boubacar Traore, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It is years since Boubacar Traoré last played in Britain, and his arrival is announced by a man with a feather and a horn exhorting: "The king of African blues is back." Sterns, the English record label, rediscovered the Malian guitarist and singer after a tape leaked out of Radio Mali in 1987 and was released as Mariama in 1989.

It is years since Boubacar Traoré last played in Britain, and his arrival is announced by a man with a feather and a horn exhorting: "The king of African blues is back." Sterns, the English record label, rediscovered the Malian guitarist and singer after a tape leaked out of Radio Mali in 1987 and was released as Mariama in 1989. He was tracked down to a suburb of Paris; a migrant worker who had long put away his guitar for manual work - any kind of work - to support his family after the death in childbirth of his beloved wife, Pierrette. Many of his songs are dedicated to her, and the sound of his voice and guitar is achingly infused with an unquenchable longing for love in the face of death.

Nicknamed Kar-Kar, his first hits were early Sixties adaptations of American dance crazes - the "Mali Twist" and "Kar-Kar Madison" - wake-up calls from a golden age of African popular music. Not that he made any money from them, and after a change in the country's leadership, he was out of favour, out of work and out of the picture for the next 20 years. Most people thought he was dead until his rediscovery in 1987.

The revival of his flowing, melodic blues - influenced by American rock'n'roll and rooted in West Malian kassonke music - is one of those tales of chance that makes the music's survival all the more precious. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, the 63-year-old Traoré's appearance as part of the Africa Remix Festival brought a legend down to earth with an extraordinary performance to an expectant, sell-out audience.

He appears to an auditorium of applause that looks set to last as long as his absence from these shores. He is accompanied by a calabash, set on a thick blanket on a small, round table at the front of the stage, draped in cloth as if for a séance. The way the instrument is played - with the palm, fist and finger rings - seems to summon up the timbre of the stage floor with a surprisingly powerful bass-sound that roots Traoré's songs right at the centre of the earth.

He begins with the achingly beautiful lament for absent love that is "Santa Maria". He has a powerful picking technique and it is the bass melody lines that do much of the work in carrying the songs. His complex figures are musical wanderers, beginning as slow, blues lines that develop into dance tunes; his solos often breaking in and out of different time signatures.

It's music that's impossible to resist, and during the next 90 minutes, the audience is transported into Kar-Kar time, via the likes of the mournful "Les Enfants de Pierrette", or the country-building exhortations of "Kayes-ba". By the time he returns for the first of two encores, the standing ovation from the crowd sees this king of African blues raise his fists in a most satisfying triumph against epic adversity. "Fate made me an old man," he says on the 2001 documentary I'll Sing for You, "and now it has made me a young man again."

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