I'LL SING FOR YOUNR
Blues music is undeniably an American art form--say "the blues" and people envision smoky barrooms in steamy Southern deltas, a lone black man on the piano, or a dance floor filled with couples moving to a sad, slow tune sung by a bedizened black woman. The blues are songs of the African-American diaspora, down-and-out stories and love-gone-wrong laments. But if this is the American-ness of the blues, what is its African-ness? How did the percussive, rhythmic music of Africa transform itself into the languorous, softly resonant tunes of American blues? Jacques Sarasin's I'll Sing for You provides a clue: Boubacar Traor. Traor, popularly known as Kar-Kar (the sobriquet refers to a skill in soccer), is a Malian singer-guitarist whose music combines African percussion instruments with a blues-heavy guitar.
I'll Sing for You is a hybrid, both a standard documentary and a performance film: Sarasin interviews friends of the musician, there's archival footage and photos, and Kar-Kar's playing, but the musician never speaks directly to the camera. Apparently, he wasn't an easy subject; Sarasin admits in an interview that before he completed the film, Kar-Kar declared he was through with it, and only the intervention of the French Cultural Institute got the musician back in front of the camera. Sarasin outlines Kar-Kar's creative life, which began in the 1960s with Mali's independence from France; Kar-Kar then consciously emulated Elvis Presley and was a pop star. He brought the "twist" to Mali and sang songs celebrating his country's independence. Sarasin also touches on Kar-Kar's marriage, a happy one that ended when his wife died in childbirth, but despite being based on a book, Mali Blues, the film leaves many years of Kar-Kar's life unexplained, such as what he did when he emigrated to France. Nonetheless, the "performance film" side of the documentary is sublime--Kar-Kar's virtuosity is unmistakable--and much of the musician's interior life is explained in his music.
Kar-Kar performs with other musicians, mostly percussionists, and the kora player (the kora is a stringed instrument) Ballak Sissoko. The timbre and sonorousness of Kar-Kar's voice are reminiscent of the great American blues singers--in an interview in Rhythm, he named Otis Redding as an influence--but his lyrics betray different roots: They are in Bambara and French, the languages of his homeland, and while they tell universal stories of loss, they are also distinctly African. They speak of Islam and of expatriation. Sarasin sets Kar-Kar's performances in places that hold meaning for the musician and some, like the graveyard where the artist's wife is buried, inspire soulful elegies. Other places celebrate Kar-Kar's pride in his homeland, and the music takes a percussive turn, most memorably when he performs with calabash drummer Madieye Niang, but melody and lyric always maintain the plaintive undertones of the blues.
Sarasin's instinct not to have Kar-Kar address the camera allows him to explore his subject more creatively, to find him in the exotic Malian landscape, in the faces of the women and children who come to hear him play, even in a seemingly contrived conversation with old friends from his pop star days. I'll Sing for You is a gentle portrait of a musician whose music provides a bridge from Africa to America. While Kar-Kar may be little-known here, Sarasin's documentary should change that and preserve Kar-Kar's work, which, like all great blues music, is an anodyne for the lonely, tenebrous depths of the human soul.