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‘Masters of Mali’ Traor and Tour get the blues

Boubacar Traoré performing Wednesday at First Church in Cambridge. Boubacar Traoré performing Wednesday at First Church in Cambridge. (josh reynolds for the boston globe)
By Franklin Soults
Globe Correspondent / October 8, 2011

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MASTERS OF MALI: Boubacar Traoré and Sidi Touré

At: First Church in Cambridge, Wednesday

CAMBRIDGE - Even a French family sitting in one of the many full pews at First Church in Cambridge on Wednesday confessed difficulty in understanding Sidi Touré’s French commentary. But they agreed that, at one point, the charismatic Malian singer and guitarist said something like, “What do I know about America’s blues? I just play my traditional African music.’’

Well, maybe. Dressed in beautifully patterned robes, Touré and his two backing musicians performed the first half of an evening of contemporary acoustic music from Mali. To ears raised on American music, however, it sounded like the trio circled the blues until capturing it with their final number, in which kurbu player Douma Maiga took up a four-string bolombatto that rattled like a steel guitar.

Perhaps this striking musical resemblance is purely coincidental, or deeply historical, or neither. (According to the program notes, Touré grew up listening to J.J. Cale.) Regardless, it made the evening’s cyclical, melancholic music feel both hauntingly familiar and strange at once.

That feeling pales on Touré’s reserved second album, “Sahel Folk,’’ but in his varied, vibrant performance, the youthful 52-year-old made the most of it, getting the church’s polite audience to clap a neat polyrhythm on one number, and to chant ‘Ça va!’’ on another.

In the evening’s second half, Boubacar Traoré triangulated the blues parallel by adding sweet Parisian overtones.

Among Mali’s most accomplished guitarists and singers - with a career spanning 40 years of fame, obscurity, then fame again - Traoré softens his mesmerizing African folk-blues on his new album, “Mali Denhou,’’ by adding French harmonica player Vincent Bucher.

In Cambridge the pairing made sense, with Bucher’s Franco-blues curlicues complementing Traoré’s droning and cascading acoustic guitar as impressively as the stirring rhythms of gourd player Madieye Niang. Though one long, gentle song sometimes blurred into the next, the trio usually developed riffs so solid and spacious, it felt like one could raise a family under their tightly woven melodic lines - with offspring that would somehow be part French, part American, and all African.

Franklin Soults can be reached at

MASTERS OF MALI: Boubacar Traor and Sidi Tour

At: First Church in Cambridge, Wednesday