Lobi Traore: Guitarist who fused blues and rock with his native Malian music

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The Independent Online

A songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist, Lobi Traoré was best known for his distinctive, almost psychedelic guitar style. His music was a gritty but never overwrought fusion of rock and blues with his own Bambara folklore roots and earned him a strong cult following at home in Mali. He came to be known abroad during the last two decades through a series of solo and collaborative albums, as well as numerous tours. Word about his legendary residencies at Bamako night spots such as Bozo bar and Ma Kele Kele filtered out via reports by visiting musical cognoscenti.

One of these was the writer and musician Banning Eyre, who recalls in his book In Griot Time: an American guitarist in Mali (2000) how the Bambara bluesman described his relationship with American influences, such as the music of John Lee Hooker. "Maybe I was inspired by it. Maybe the blues was inspired by Africa. Maybe the resemblance is just a coincidence. What I know is this: the music I play comes from my place."

After visiting Mali in 2000 and playing with Traoré, the American blues guitarist Bonnie Raitt remarked: "Bambara music, and the way that Lobi plays it, is something that really moves me because it's so blues – he has a very interesting hybrid of rock and African and blues in him and he is original in a way that I've never heard anybody; his tone and what he plays where and his band are unbelievable."

Traoré was born in the village of Bakaridianna, close to the provincial capital of Ségou. Both his parents took part as singers in the local Komo secret society, and when he was only 16, he joined the folk group Apollo in Ségou, as a drummer.

His professional career commenced shortly after this when he moved to Bamako, where he played guitar in a wedding band. At that time, Traoré's only background was in the Bambara music he had grown up with, and he was compelled to learn the Manding styles they played.

In 1979 he went with Apollo to play for three months in the Ivory Coast capital Abidjan, and ended up staying there till 1984. On his return to Bamako, he began learning guitar skills from Zani Diabaté of the Super Djata Band, with whom he would soon make his first tours of Europe and North America, as one of their singers. During the 1980s, he further honed his guitar style in Bamako's more leftfield bars, which eventually brought him to the attention of the producer Philippe Berthier, who recorded his first cassette, Bambara Blues in 1991.

For the follow-up album Bamako (1994), Traoré began an association with the late "desert blues" maestro Ali Farka Touré, who produced and made guest appearances on this and the two subsequent releases, Segou (1996) and Duga (1999). On the latter he was joined by the Paris-based harmonica player Vincent Bucher, whom he had got to know during tours of Europe in the mid-1990s. When the British musician Damon Albarn visited Mali in 1999 as part of the On the Line project, he started work on the album that would become Mali Music (Honest Jon's, 2002), which included a contribution by Traoré.

Traoré performed at the 2003 Festival in the Desert, the celebrated annual gathering in the dusty north of Mali, near Timbuktu, and in 2005, Honest Jon's released the album The Lobi Traoré Group, a live recording made three years earlier. It would be another three years before they appeared at London's Barbican Centre for the Honest Jon's Chop Up.

The same year, Traoré released his last album I Yougoba (Diesel Motor), a collaboration with the Dutch blues artist Joep Pelt, who had met him on a visit to Mali in 2004. They had recorded it in 2006, and toured Europe the following year. Traoré's most recent high-profile work was in contributing lead guitar to two tracks on the album BKO (Glitterhouse, 2010) by the US-based group Dirtmusic. Two more recently recorded albums by Traoré are likely to be released soon.

Jon Lusk

Bourama (Lobi) Traoré, musician: born Bakaridianna, Mali 1 January 1962; married (four children); died Bamako, Mali 1 June 2010.