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By Phil Hall | June 2, 2004

“I’ll Sing for You” is a meandering and disappointing documentary about one of Africa’s most beloved yet elusive musical giants: Boubacar Traore, known to his fans throughout Mali as “KarKar.” During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he held a prominence in his country which was equivalent to the star power of Elvis Presley in the United States. But in the mid-1960s, Traore abruptly disappeared from sight and many Malians assumed he had died. In the early 1980s, an English music producer who happened upon an old recording went searching for him and to the delight and surprise of the Malian people, their beloved KarKar was discovered to be very much alive and still in fine musical form.

Traore’s story is a compelling mystery with genuine heartbreaking twists of fate, including a horrifying spiral into poverty, the sudden death of his beloved wife and years of self-imposed obscurity when Traore abandoned Mali for menial construction work in Paris. Though strangely, filmmaker Jacques Sarasin fails to crack the puzzle of Traore’s disappearance. The artist is very much an enigma: he happily performs many songs for the camera, often in unlikely settings (including a guitar-strumming stroll through the ancient city of Timbuktu). Yet Traore avoids talking with any depth about himself, and the grittier details of his life and career are relayed second-hand.

When he is not performing, “I’ll Sing for You” follows Traore on an extended tour of Mali. Much of this feels like a travelogue and certain sequences, including Traore’s viewing of a soccer match, add nothing to a story which is clearly a half-told tale.

Sarasin is also at a disadvantage due to the lack of film footage of Traore during his youthful peak years. Aside from a few faded black-and-white photographs, there is nothing to capture a sense of his performing style beyond vague recollections of fans and friends.

One problem which is fairly blatant in the film is, curiously, Traore’s music. He is credited as introducing the Twist to Mali, but we never hear his recording of Twist-inspired music. There is also a lot of talk of how he was influenced by late 1950s American rockers such as Bill Haley, Little Richard and (of course) Elvis Presley, but Traore’s music has no rock influences whatsoever. If anything, his songs sound like socialist propaganda folk music, with bland exhortations of the Malian people to work themselves into exhaustion as a way of giving thanks for their independence. His current music provides a remarkably sensitive comprehension of the basic tenets of Islam, and in the film’s rare insightful moment Traore calmly explains how the African custom of fetish worship was carefully incorporated into Islam despite that faith’s prohibition of worshipping man-made idols.

Traore is still performing and a very brief snippet of a concert is offered here, but it barely gives the impression of the charisma which he supposedly maintains. (Though an unintentional giggle can be enjoyed at the primitive Malian sound system for the concert: a half-dozen microphones lined up on oversized stands in front of Traore while he strums his guitar.)

Fans of Afropop may enjoy “I’ll Sing for You” strictly for its soundtrack and the colorful presentation of today’s Mali. For everyone else, there’s not much to sing about here.

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