I’ll Sing For You

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

I’LL SING FOR YOU

5/10

Je Chanterai pour toi : France (Fr/Mali) 2001 : Jacques Sarasin : 76 mins

Poetic, elegaic portrait of legendary Mali blues-man Boubacar ‘KarKar’ Traore, following him on his return home after many years in French exile. Director Sarasin clearly has no interest in assembling a standard factual profile of his subject – we glean only the bare details of KarKar’s life, and even less of the tumultuous upheavals in his unfortunate country since KarKar’s musical heyday in the late 50s and early 60s. We’re told of the country’s independence – the subject of several propaganda-tinged songs from KarKar – in 1960, and shown vibrant newsreel footage of the young country’s go-ahead spirit accompanied by the singer’s inspirational lyrics: “Children of an independent Mali. all together, let us build our homeland,” etc.

But there’s absolutely nothing on the military coup that brought this democratic, optimistic era to a sudden halt only eight years later. Students of Mali history will know that Mali’s dictator was Moussa Traore – a very common name in Mali, so presumably no relation of KarKar’s – but it seems odd not to even mention the subject at all.

Instead, we see KarKar in a series of picturesque Mali settings, from his home-town of Kayes to more scenic and far-flung regions. The camera often ‘discovers’ KarKar in action, strumming his guitar and singing his blues in the native Bambara tongue, often to a smilingly appreciative local audience. He’s clearly lost none of his talent, and comes across as a warm, engaging performer – Sarasin’s video cameras get intimately close to what is a great, ageless, blues-man’s face. And KarKar has seen plenty of the customary hardships associated with the blues: economic strife, painful exile from his troubled homeland and, most tragic of all, the death in childbirth of his beloved wife, Pierrette.

But while we get a strong impression of his spirit, KarKar’s personality never really comes into sharp focus. Despite being on-screen for most of the film’s running-time, there’s no interview in which he’s able to speak directly. Instead, Sarasin interviews a series of talkative witnesses who fill in details of KarKar’s past and present. Sarasin himself takes a detached role, as if casually observing events – though many of these events are clearly arranged by the director and staged for the benefit of the cameras. The results are always very easy on the eye and ear, amounting to a musical travelogue vividly capturing the atmosphere of present-day Mali – even if the lack of solid information does finally become a distracting, frustrating omission.

23rd October, 2002
(seen on video, 21st October. Video from Leeds Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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