On March 6, 2006, Ali Farka Toure died after a long illness, just weeks after the one of the albums he excitedly told our writer about won a Grammy, “This is the best album… .the best. I swear!” We republish this piece in his honour.
It was the first Festival sur le Niger in Segou and when Ali Farka Toure strode on stage — understated and cool — wearing his Fedora hat and an incredible white suit there was a hushed reaction from the audience. Young twenty-something Malians on each side of me, nudged me with a proud look on their face and whispered, “that’s Ali Farka!” We were in the presence of a living legend.
An arrangement to meet him at the festival fell apart, but I was encouraged by lots of well-meaning but conflicting advice on how to get face to face with Ali Farka. In the end it was easy, I got the number of his hotel in Niafunké. Ali was in, and on the phone in a second. Stuttering my way in French, I introduced myself to a deep woody voice, all smiles and old-fashioned courtesy. There was nothing unusual in some strange foreigner asking to come and see him it seemed: “Call me when you’re in Bamako, come to my house, you’re welcome…”
My last night in Mali and I found myself in a taxi, half-dead from the March heat, winding my way through Bamako suburbs towards our rendezvous. No street signs for the pot-holed roads we rolled along, lined by substantial two-storey houses, children playing football, groups of women sitting in doorways, men listening to the radio on street corners. We stopped and asked directions and everyone knew where he lived, pointing us on our way. This world-famous musician seems to be at the heart of the community and everyone’s neighbour.
We arrive at the gate and are greeted by a group of old men sitting round a TV in the courtyard. And one if them is Ali Farka Touré in his vest. Long legs are unravelled as he gets up to greet me with a smile on his face as if we’re old friends and I’ve just popped round to see the family. We walk into the house and the dark cool lounge — a large reception room, leather chairs and sofas, a huge TV and, on the walls, massive photos of Ali through the years.
He talks as though he’s some relaxed old man with time on his hands, in fact he has ‘retired’ once before, in 1990 — but that didn’t last long. And over 10 years later, today Ali is still a busy man and I’m lucky to catch him at home. Not only is he still playing regularly, but he’s also got work back home in Niafunké as mayor since he was elected in 2004, his newly formed Ali Farka Touré Foundation officially announced early in 2005, and his farm which he’s worked on since the 1980s.
There was a recent announcement in Brussels that he wasn’t going to play international dates anymore, sticking to Mali from now on. “I’m tired,” he explains, “I can’t cope with things in the way I did when was 50 or even 40 — I’m 65 years old. I can’t do long journeys anymore — and that sort of thing. And I have so much to do here. There’s no problem if I play here in Mali. I can come and the same day I can go back home when I’m finished. But outside of Mali, it’s very difficult.”
And yet the international tour dates are still coming — America and Europe, including a June date at the Barbican in London. And looking at his career, which has spanned over 40 years with regular album releases since the late 80s and his first international concert in 87, it seems he just can’t stop. He explains; “If people ask and insist, there’s no problem for me, I cant say ‘no’. We’re all here to do good, and do things better.”
His responsibilities as mayor and teacher are large though, challenging him just as much as the music. His tone is serious and heart-felt as he explains, “These days I have responsibilities that are even more heavy because I am the mayor of the Niafunké area. I have 53 villages and… I’m obliged to share everything that I have with this population, me alone. And that’s a real responsibility. Someone who is sick comes to me; someone who is hungry comes to me; someone who doesn’t have any clothes comes… ”
The Ali Farka Touré Foundation falls under this philanthropic work, “It’s for the whole of the Niafunké area which is very large. This area is three times the size of France… three times! Mali is so big, you can’t work for the whole country, but everyone has to do his part to help it improve. It’s for this reason that we have this Foundation.” He goes on to explain the work planned, “a large part of the Foundation is to help and support. It’s for young musicians as well as the next generation in the areas of education, health, water. We are going to go to one village and make a well, or go to another and build a dispensary.”
“No Malian would be able to say to you that: ‘that’s blues music’ if he says that he’s lying. If you say ‘blues’ he’ll go and find you a doctor… and that’s the truth.”
The conversation turns to music. I ask him about the label of ‘Malian blues’ that he’s been wearing for all these years, and all of a sudden, the serious old man of a minute ago has disappeared — he fires up, slapping his hand on the leather sofa and says: “Oh it annoys me… when people say ‘You are the Blues Man’ it annoys me because I know that what I do is traditional to this culture and it’s, above all, the roots of this culture. Every person only knows what he has learnt, every person evolves in the context that he grew up in and what he knows.” He continues, “There are music labels for each ethnic group, for each culture, because each ethnic group has their own culture, biography, legends and history.”
His love and respect for his country is clear, for him Mali is the world’s musical heart; “Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music. It is also the sharing of history, legend, biography of Africa — that’s Mali.” He has been researching and mastering the wealth of musical tradition of his country throughout his long career, beginning as a sound engineer and then picking 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.
“If there was anyone who benefited it is [Ry Cooder], 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.”
There have been other influences and collaborations, as far back as the late 1960s, artists such as BB King, John Lee Hooker, Clarence Powell and Bonny White. These musicians introduced Ali Farka Touré to African-American music and the ‘blues’ sound and experience that Ali fights against being labelled with. The blues and Ali’s sound are similar of course, but he insists he plays at the pure roots of the music — using instruments, rhythms and tone that can only be Malian, the “library” of the world’s music. “What I know is from traditional guitarists, traditional violinists… bamboo flutes… These are sounds that are two or three thousand years old. Our empire is what has given me the strength to express myself and to create.” It can’t be translated into the word blues, it’s tradition, while the blues men in the northern hemisphere are doing something different. “The word ‘blues’, here in Mali we don’t have the ‘blues’, it doesn’t exist. No. No Malian would be able to say to you that: ‘that’s blues music’ if he says that he’s lying. If you say ‘blues’ he’ll go and find you a doctor… and that’s the truth.”
And this brings us to the other famous collaboration on Talking Timbuktu — Grammy Award winning this time — with the American guitarist Ry Cooder back in 1994. “Our collaboration was unique in the world. It was like when you add honey and mix it with sugar.” Despite this unique mixing of creative minds, Ali showed his mettle and refused to leave his farm to record the album. The team had to set up equipment in an abandoned brick hall in Niafunké using portable equipment and gasoline generators for a power supply. Ali is 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.”
“I thank God because now we have created something from Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté”
He has just finished working on a new album — the first in five years — and before I can catch my breath, he’s jumped up and putting the CD into his stereo; “This is the best album… .the best. I swear!” The album, In the Heart of the Moon, was still untitled at that stage and no release date had been set but it’s any day now, he told me. He sits down beside me on the sofa, remote control in hand and gives me a taste of each of the ten tracks. His eyes, wide and sparkling, tell me I’m not allowed to speak but have to give myself up to his creation — and then the most beautiful delicate sound washes out of the speakers, conducted by Ali’s hand, his nodding head and the expressions on his face.
The familiar Ali Farka Touré sound has evolved into something 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. I push for an explanation as to why this is the best album yet, “It’s because of how we worked. In Africa there is no imitation, we do everything with the whole heart. Personally, I know this will be my best album. It’s an album that is different to everything I’ve done in the past. Which has taken the most strength and is the most different… totally.”
I’m amazed that this explosion of sound was recorded in ten days, but Ali replies that if he is working on his own in the studio he can record an album in one day; “It can come to me in the studio, like that. It’s always been like that.” All the musicians on this new album are young and Malian, and many of the tracks feature the kora-player Toumani Diabaté who also worked with Ali in the studio on his own solo album. “I thank God because now we have created something from Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté,” he continues, “I have an advantage because I am older. Before anything, I have ears and I still have the inspiration of everything that I know. I have that. That gives me the strength; that gives me the conviction to work with the new generation to help them open the door themselves. I am totally happy to do that, if I didn’t I would become selfish. It’s about pride in what I do.”
Before I know it, nearly two hours have passed with this inspired, charismatic man. He looks at his watch and very politely lets me know it’s time to go. He has another meeting to go to. As the taxi drives off I look over my shoulder to see Ali Farka standing at his gate, transformed from an old man in his vest into the art of cool in a sharp suit and Fedora. The taxi man asks in a deferential tone: “So how was He?” — and the ‘He’ definitely had a capital “H”.
Pictures of Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté playing the Barbican here on our sister site Flykr and a review of the gig here.
Read the review of In the Heart of the Moon
Also released recently are the wonderful Red and Green albums
Read about Ali playing the Segou Festival in Mali and see Lydia Martin’s pictures of the event on Flykr