Je Chanterai Pour Toi: Karkar Film Review
Je Chanterai Pour Toi is a new documentary film by Jacques Sarasin, presented by Jonathan Demme, and telling the story of Malian singer, guitarist and songwriter Boubacar Traoré, better known as "Karkar." That name refers to Traoré's early prowess in soccer, dodging and weaving and always managing to get the break--karkar in Bambara. As the film makes clear, Karkar has not always gotten the breaks in life. In fact, his career has a chancy, almost accidental feel about it at every turn. He did not come from a musical caste or family, a fact that meant a good deal more in 1960 than it does now in the post-Salif Keita era. Karkar's initial early '60s fame seems to have had as much to do with style and history as with music. He had the right look--an African Elvis with an electric guitar, a leather jacket and bell-bottoms--and the right message for his time: Mali is a free, independent country now, and its time for expatriates to return home and for young Malians to turn to and build a new country.
The film's presentation of this nascent moment in Mali's history is particularly interesting. We get snatches of Malians gathering to celebrate the rise of the country's revolutionary president, Modibo Keita, fabulous images by photographer Malik Sidibe of young Malians donning 60s attire and dancing, and also pointed recollections from Karkar acquaintances, like the narrator Mamadou Sangare. At one point, Karkar is jokingly recalled as "the one who tricked us in '63. Now, we are in shit!" As the film moves from Bamako, the capital, to Kayes, the town near the Senegalese border where Karkar was born and raised, we revisit a few "grins," gathering places where young socialists went to hear music and speak freely. These watering holes were a kind of spiritual and communal center for life in the era of Karkar's enduring hits, "Karkar Madison" and "Mali Twist." But Karkar's incarnation as a nationalist rocker was brief. In the early 60s, he determined that music was not a fit career for responsible young noble. With his father deceased, and his older brother abroad, he became head of his family, and pursued a faltering career in commerce. In 1964, the government closed the grins, fearing the talk was getting a little too free. That was also the year that Karkar met his wife, Pierette, born in Bandiagara in Dogon Country. Karkar would spend the next two decades struggling in business, happy in marriage, and mostly out of sight. Many Malians assumed he was dead during this time. But then, when Pierette died in childbirth, and a distraught Karkar went to Paris to work as a laborer, the stage was set for a new chapter.
That came when a recruiter from the Stern's Africa label in London sought him out and urged him to begin recording again. Now an older man, with an acoustic guitar and a repertoire of bluesy, melancholy ballads, and just a hint of the old rock-star twinkle in his eye, Karkar began his second act. This is the man we meet in the film, first seen in a traditional robe and skull cap, curled around his big guitar, head pressed against its body as he sings a song of praise of Allah, and wonder at how his beloved wife and brother could have been taken from him.
In fact, we never really meet Karkar, as he never speaks directly to the camera, most likely on his own insistence; he is notoriously interview shy. Instead, we see him playing his guitar and singing on the train to Kayes, on a pirogue in Mopti, and near the end of the film, in Timbuktu with Ali Farka Touré. In one sequence, he sings his song "Mariama" accompanied by Ballake Sissoko on kora. There's a brief treatment of the Manding griot tradition, highlighted when a woman sings Karkar's praises with her ancestral references translated in subtitles: "You captured some of your enemies and killed those remaining." In these encounters, we are left to understand--but never explicitly told--that Karkar is very different from these other musicians, not a product of any Malian tradition per se, but an amalgam, an original, his own man.
Along the way, the film touches on a number of areas of Malian life, such as the delicate balance between Islam and animist religious practice at home, and the struggles of immigrants in France. Karkar's small story becomes a way of suggesting the bigger story of Mali. But there are contradictions. Viewers without knowledge of Mali may not fully grasp how unusual Karkar is in the Malian scene. Aside from his mysterious musical pedigree, there is the fact that so many of his songs dwell upon his sense of loss over Pierette. In one scene, he visits her grave and promises to sing her name all over the world. That idea, of course, connects with griotism, but Karkar doesn't just praise and memorialize his dead wife. He mourns her, with a kind of obsessiveness more characteristic of a European romantic poet than a Malian bard. We hear from older Malians who are thrilled with Karkar's return, but we may not fully appreciate the fact that it is supporters and fans outside Mali--such as the filmmakers themselves--who brought him back, and have mostly sustained him over his decade-long second career.
There are things to quibble with in this film. The scene with Ali Farka Touré is irresistible, but it doesn't really connect with the story, except in an unstated way--Farka too is a musician whose greatest success has been with blues fans around the world, not with the Malian masses. Overall, though this is a beautiful and subtle work, and a must for Mali music fans.
Je Chanterai Pour Toi just completed a limited run at the Walter Reade Theatre at New York's Lincoln Center. It may be hard to find, but it is quietly making the rounds, and well worth seeking out. There is an upcoming CD with music from the film, and a website where you can find out more about both:

Contributed by: Banning Eyre