|Our Homage To A Great Master - Ali Farka Toure|
Last month marked the first death anniversary of the Malian music legend, Ali Farka Toure. Born on October 31, 1939 in Timbuktu, Mali Ali Farka was perhaps one of Africa’s most renowned musicians – both within the continent as well as outside. He passed away on 6th March last year in Bamako, Mali, giving in to the bone cancer that he had been battling for a long time. He was sixty seven.
Toure is known around the world today as the Bluesman of Africa, because of his highly distinctive style. A master craftsman with the guitar, Toure’s music had a very different sound. One is tempted to refer to its as something like a mix or fusion of the Arabic-influenced tradition African, Malian sound and the American blues genre (somewhat akin to the music made bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker). However, in his own opinion, he owed very little to the ‘blues’ – he called his music traditional Malian music. There was little reason for him to look for inspiration outside Mali, according to him Mali was first and foremost a library of the history of African music and perhaps also the heart of the musical world itself.. Ali’s love for his country was clear. He owed her a huge debt, as he researched and mastered the wealth of the country’s musical traditions.
Ali Farka Toure began his career as a sound engineer and then picked up the gurkel, a single string African guitar and then the njarka, a single string fiddle. It was in 1956 in Bamako that he heard the guitar mastery of the Guinean Keita Fodeba in Bamako, and it was then that he decided to teach himself to play the guitar, adapting traditional songs using the techniques he had learned on the gurkel. He usually sang in one of several African languages, mostly Songhay, Fulfulde, or Tamasheq, as on his breakthrough album, Ali Farka Touré, which established his reputation in the world music community. On some of his other albums, Ali Farka also worked with other world-renowned artists such as music group Taj Mahal, and tabla artist Nitin Sawhney. In September 2005, he released the album In the Heart of the Moon, a collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, for which he received a second Grammy award. His last album, Savane, was posthumously released in July 2006. It was received with wide acclaim by professionals and fans alike and was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category 'Best Contemporary World Music Album'.
Perhaps his most well-known musical collaboration however, is the album titled Talking Timbuktu – a Grammy Award winning album – with the American guitarist Ry Cooder back in 1994. In Toure’s own words, “Our collaboration was unique in the world. It was like when you add honey and mix it with sugar.” In fact, this recording topped many indie charts within days of it's release. What is even more interesting is that, despite this unique mixing of creative minds, Ali had in fact refused to leave his farm to record the album. The team had had to set up equipment in an abandoned brick hall in Niafunké using portable equipment and gasoline generators for a power supply. Interestingly enough, Ali was clear — Ry Cooder’s “participation” (please note) wasn’t the highlight of Ali’s career, and didn’t influence his music in any way; “If there was anyone who benefited it is him, because he found something he hadn’t known before. I always knew what I was. This collaboration wasn’t the ‘top’ for me because, before the music, I am Ali.” But Ali is proud of their work together and of what was the result of the album and the Grammy Award; “Ten million people who hadn’t heard of Ry Cooder, knew him. Ten million people who had never heard of Ali Farka Touré, now knew him. We became stars around the world.”
Ali Farka’s contribution to the world of music is perhaps insurmountable. However that was not all he spent his energies on. In 2004 Touré was elected the mayor of Niafunké area with 53 villages under his supervision, and took his responsibilities very seriously. He in fact spent his own money grading the roads, putting in sewer canals and fuelling a generator that provided the impoverished town with electricity. In 2005, he set up the Ali Farka Toure Foundation, which undertakes philanthropic work in Niafunke with a view to improving conditions of life for the next generation of Mali. In addition to these responsibilities he also had his own farm, which he had been working on since the 1980s.
Of course, he continued to record music and perform all around the world. In 1999 he released an album called Niafunke, and 2005 saw him collaborate with Toumani Diabaté. However, all this came to an abrupt end, as he passed away on 6th March, 2006. The world lost a musical genius, and Mali lost her most devoted son. In 2006 itself however, another album titled Savane was released posthumously. And in addition to this, his record label, World Circuit, said that he just finished recording several tracks with his son Vieux Farka Touré for Vieux's debut album. These are expected to be released in 2007, something the whole world is eagerly looking forward to.
By listening to his different albums one can see for oneself how the familiar Ali Farka Touré sound has evolved into something much richer and more avant garde. The traditional rhythms and instruments of Mali take centre stage but the distinctive guitar and voice of Ali Farka weaves all the ingredients together into a very new mature pure sound. And as far as the influence of the blues is concerned, perhaps Martin Scorsese is right in characterizing Toure’s tradition as constituting “the DNA of the blues.”
For the benefit of our readers, we have put together a partial discography of Ali Farka Toure’s music, so that those who are interesting may have a listen.
Ali Farka Toure (Shanachie, CD),
Ali Farka Toure 1987 (World Circuit, UK)
The River 1989 (World Circuit, UK)
The Source 1992 (World Circuit, UK)
Talking Timbuktu 1994 (Hannibal/World Circuit, UK)
In the Heart of the Moon 2005