We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The life of Boubacar “KarKar’’ Traoré is quite a saga, but French documentarian Jacques Sarasin apparently would prefer that viewers of I’ll Sing for You not know that. An example of cinéma vérité at its most fetishistic, the film expends more effort concealing its subject than revealing it. Traoré, as careful students of the movie may be able to piece together, is a Malian singer who brought early-’60s American and European youth-culture dances to Africa. Although the film shows a few photos of the performer in his early-’60s African-Elvis phase, it doesn’t include—or even name—such Traoré mainstays as “Mali Twist” and “KarKar Madison.” That, however, is the least of Sarasin’s omissions. Traoré doesn’t speak a word to the camera, talking only to friends in brief, offhand conversations; his life story is told by various friends and observers, none of whom are identified. Such reasonably well-known Malian musicians as Ali Farka Touré and Ballaké Sissoko also appear but are never introduced. People who have never heard of Traoré will be utterly lost, and even world-music buffs will probably wish they had crammed before entering the theater. (For anyone that dedicated, the book to read is Lieve Joris’ Mali Blues: Traveling to an African Beat.) It’s possible that Sarasin was trying to honor Traoré’s own reticence about his life, yet all the biographical particulars are mentioned, albeit cryptically: Traoré’s inability to support himself as a musician; the disappearance of the outdoor venues where he used to perform; the shattering death of his wife, Pierrette, in childbirth; his time in France earning money to support his children; his return to performing, thanks to the dogged interest of an unnamed British producer. Rather than information, Sarasin offers shots of such arid Mali locales as Timbuktu, the Dogon region, and Kayes, Traoré’s hometown, all designed to make the singer—who last appeared in Washington less than four years ago—seem exotic. Absurdly uncommunicative, I’ll Sing for You is a travelogue without the “-logue.” —Mark Jenkins