Singer, guitarist, songwriter
Boubacar Traoré, known as Kar Kar, went from being an unknown kid from a small town in Mali to being a star of Malian radio by age 21. Yet by 1975, he was once again living in obscurity. His return to the spotlight in the mid-1980s was short-lived, as personal tragedies drove him to seek work in France. Rediscovered yet again, he began recording and touring in the 1990s and remains a popular performer.
Traoré was born in 1942 in Kayes, a town in the western region of Mali, a country in west Africa. Traoré is a Muslim, as is 90 percent of Mali’s population. He speaks Bambara, his native language, and French, but no English. Traoré’s parents were farmers, and he was raised with three brothers, Kalilou, Baaba, and Maciré.
As a child, Traoré loved soccer, so much so that at age 12, he left school “because he couldn’t think about anything else,” according to Lieve Joris, author of Mali Blues: Traveling to an African Beat. “He was so good at dribbling—kari kari in Bambara—that his supporters encouraged him loudly. When he began singing, they all knew him as Kar Kar.” In an interview with David d’Arcy on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, Traoré explained that his older brother had a guitar; fearful of his brother, Traoré would wait until he had gone out and then borrow the guitar, teaching himself to play. He plays the guitar with two fingers in the tradition of the kora, an African harp. His early influences were American blues singers, including John Lee Hooker, and traditional music from Mali called kassonké.
According to Chris Nickson, writing for the All Music Guide website, “Music caught his attention, and the round ball faded into the background. He began sitting in with orchestras around Kayes (including the Orchestra Regional de Kayes), playing his guitar and singing, before moving to the country’s capital….” When Malian radio recorded eight of Traoré’s songs in 1963, he became incredibly popular. His most famous song, “Mali Twist,” became akin to a national anthem for the country that had recently won its independence. While performing, Traoré wore a black leather jacket, similar to the one worn by American singer Elvis Presley, earning Traoré the nicknames “Black Jacket” and “the African Elvis.” Unfortunately, Traoré never made any money from those songs. According to Joris, “He had donated his songs to the country; they were played on the radio every day but never recorded and sold, he never earned anything from them. [Traoré explained:] The Malians loved me. I was their Johnny Halliday, their James Brown, but I didn’t have enough money in my pocket to buy cigarettes.’”
Because he could not earn a living as a musician, Traoré worked during the week as a tailor. Eventually he was offered a job as an agricultural agent, supplying farmers with salt, powdered milk, seeds, and rice. On the weekends, he played in an orchestra; at one of his
Born in 1942 in Kayes, Mali; married Pierrette Francoise, mid-1960s (deceased); had eleven children, six of whom survived.
Recorded eight songs for Malian radio, 1963; stopped performing publicly, 1975; appeared on Malian television, 1987; moved to France, late 1980s; released first recording, Marianma, 1990; began touring the world, early 1990s; released Maciré, 1999; became subject of documentary film I’ll Sing for You, 2001.
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shows, his future wife fell in love with him. In the mid-1960s, Traoré married Pierrette Francoise, the daughter of a Moorish woman and a French soldier. The couple had eleven children, though only three boys and three girls survived.
In 1975, after his father became very sick, Traoré left his job as an agricultural agent and returned with his family to his birthplace, Kayes. His father died a few months later. Traoré opened a small shop in the town and began farming on his family’s land. Discouraged, he no longer played in orchestras, though he occasionally earned extra money performing at local celebrations. In the evenings, he sang stories, which he recorded and sold in his shop. But the public eventually forgot him. Many assumed he had died.
While he was in the capital, Bamako, in 1987, Malian television invited him to perform. He sang a love song to his wife. Although the performance was a success, and he made a tape of his songs with a Senegalese producer, Traoré’s personal life was falling apart. Two of his children had died in the same week. His wife was not getting along with his family and took the children to live in the town of Bandiagara. She died there shortly after giving birth. Traoré was heartbroken; his pain was compounded when his family failed to offer condolences for Pierrette’s death. At that point, Traoré sold everything in his shop and a few months later moved to France. In Paris, he hoped to earn enough money to build a house for himself and his children, who had gone to live with their mother’s family. Traoré worked in France as a mason, living in a boarding house with other African immigrants and performing on the weekends.
A producer in London heard Traoré’s tape and offered to bring the musician to England for a tour. At first Traoré would not even consider such a thing, but friends persuaded him. After touring England, he made his first CD, which was released on the Stern’s label in 1990. He then toured in Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.
In the early 1990s Traoré returned to Mali, where he recorded Les Enfants de Pierrette, which contains songs about his children’s sadness over their mother’s death. Traoré returned to Europe to record Kar Kar, released in 1992. After that he spent time both in Mali, where he slowly built a house for himself and his children, and Europe, where he performed frequently. In 1993 Joris spent time with Traoré in Mali and wrote extensively about him in her book. On his next album, Sa Golo, Traoré sings songs of love, kings, and African culture. Released in 1996, Sa Golo features Traoré accompanied by the guitar and the calabash, an African percussion instrument. Frank Tenaille, writing for Le Monde de la Musique-Telerama, called it “a radiant album.”
In 1999 Traoré released Maciré, named after his brother, on Label Bleu/Indigo. The album included the song “Kar Kar Madison,” which had been a great hit for him in the 1960s. Cliff Furnald wrote for the RootsWorld website, “his rough and wonderful vocals [are] everywhere, but the material he has selected for this album is a bit more expansive than in previous recordings, a broader palette that never uses colors for their own sake. There are playful hints of Latin rhythms, more obvious bows to the blues than before, and the closing track is a wonderful reinterpretation of the 1960s dance craze, The Madison.… Boubacar Traoré is a natural, and we are blessed with another marvelous record of his human scale and natural talent.” Maciré was one of Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of the year in 1999.
In 2000 Traoré toured extensively in the United States, to great acclaim. In January of 2001 Traoré was interviewed on National Public Radio. Later that year French filmmaker Jacques Sarasin released the film I’ll Sing for You, a 76-minute documentary about Traoré’s life and music. He continues to perform throughout the world.
Manama, Stern’s, 1990.
Kar Kar, Stern’s, 1992.
Les Enfants de Pierrette, Revue Noire, 1995.
Sa Golo, Label Bleu/Indigo, 1996.
Secheresse, Sonodisc, 1999.
Maciré, Label Bleu/Indigo, 1999.
Joris, Lleve, Mali Blues: Traveling to an African Beat, Lonely Planet Publications, 1998.
Le Monde de la Musique-Telerama, January 1997.
“Boubacar Traoré,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 3, 2002).
“Boubacar Traoré,” ARTISTDirect, http://ubl.artistdirect.com/music/artist/card/0,,542663,00.html?src=redirsearch&artist=Boubacar+Traor%E9 (May 2, 2002).
“Boubacar Traoré,” RootsWorld, http://www.rootsworld.com/reviews/karkar.html (May 2, 2002).
“Kar Kar Is Coming,” Toronto Blues Society, http://www.torontobluessociety.com/0106cov_boubacar.htm (May 2, 2002).
"Traoré, Boubacar." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/traore-boubacar
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