Malian guitar wizard Lobi Traore passed away in 2010, but still had one unreleased album’s worth of material recorded. Bwati Kono is a stellar collection of tracks recorded live in a pair of Bamoko nightclubs, and the recordings find Traore in killer form. He is ably assisted by backing musicians Lamine Soumano on bass, Moribo Kouyate on balafon (xylophone), and Sekou Diarra and Adama Sissoko on percussion. This record is a strong set of gritty, electrified Afro-rock which deserves the attention of anyone currently a fan of better-known figures in the genre, such as Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Toure, or his son Vieux.
Bwati Kono gets off to a rousing start with “Makono”, a dextrous rocker that rests its finger-picking six-string virtuosity atop a bed of galloping percussion. In this way, “Makono” shares much in common with many of the songs to follow, including “Saya” and “Mali Ba”. Another common factor is Traore’s voice, which is raw but expressive. Eschewing the crying wails of Keita or Maal, Traore allows his guitar playing to do the heavy lifting here, while his low-key vocals provide respite from the instrumental excitement, rather than the other way around.
The song quality is consistent throughout, with midtempo tunes like “Banan Ni” every bit as compelling as songs like “Da Yoro”, which speeds along at a breakneck pace, carried away on waves of polyrhythmic percussion and tinkling balafon melodies. A standout track is “Bi Dongo Fa Ko”, which combines chanted vocals with chunky guitar lines to create a hypnotic tapestry of a song that threatens to transport the listener on a river of sound. This is Afro-pop, or maybe Afro-rock, at its best: traditional-sounding song structures and approaches married to modern instrumentation, as if Jimi Hendrix were a native of Timbuktu. Just don’t listen while driving, or you’re liable to go off the road.
As usual for African music, many of the songs are in the six-plus minute range, allowing the jams to grow and spread and develop into mesmerizing experiences. “Bi Donga Fa Ko” is nearly six minutes long, and wastes not a moment of its running time. “Maya Gasi Ka Bon” follows, its nine-plus minutes a feast for the ears, and just when you’re convinced it can’t get any better, the ten-minute “Ya Time” immerses you in its swampy, sludgy blues. A slow number that sets its tone immediately and never lets up, “Ya Time” gives Traore a showcase to demonstrate his effects-pedal chops, which he does with apparent glee. The vocabulary doesn’t exist — in English anyway — to describe the squawking, squalling, superfuzz joy of the extended solo jams in this song. But your ears will understand and be happy.
Amazingly, Traore isn’t done yet. Just as the record is winding up and you’re thinking, “Wow, that was astonishing,” Traore hits you with an untitled seven-minute bonus track, exchanging the guitar pyrotechnics for a quieter vibe and an emphasis on the plaintive vocals. Putting these two songs back to back is a hell of a way to end the record; the fact that this album will be Traore’s last makes it all the more poignant.
Forget “world music”. This is a blues/rock guitar album that happens come out of Bamako, not Seattle or Chicago. It owes as much to grunge as Afro-pop, but more then that, it’s the cross-pollination of the two traditions that makes the record such a joy. RIP, Lobi, and thanks.