Sweet sounds of Mali
Ali Farka Toure, the king of desert blues, regarded music as a spiritual pursuit, and hated making money from it
GLOBAL APPEAL Ali Farka Toure: `Honey does not taste sweet in only one mouth' Photo: AFP
"For some people, when you say `Timbuktu', it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world." So said Ali Farka Toure.
The album Ali Farka Toure from 1988 brought this legendary West African musician to world attention, when he was already 49 years old and mainly a farmer. As his quote above underscores, very few in this great wide world of ours knew anything of Timbuktu until he came along. Now the tiny nation of Mali boasts at least three musicians known all across the globe (the others being Toumani Diabate and Salif Keita). The reason is not hard to fathom, for the mighty all-encompassing river of the blues has crossed continents, language barriers, religions and nationalities. It is only natural that one would want to follow it back to its source, which many believe to be around and about the land of Mali.
When I first heard his album Talking Timbuktu (a Grammy winner in 1994), it was the original peal of a giant bell of which I'd only heard the 200-year-old reverberations in the blues of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Toure himself (occasionally sporting a stylish wide-brim hat and eyeglasses and looking every bit like a long lost cousin of John Lee's) began to tire of being compared to Hooker and once dismissed African-American blues as just half-remembered Malian music. But "honey does not taste sweet in only one mouth" he clarified later, to assuage the bruised feelings of blues aficionados.
So where do the blues come from? It's a debate that has raged since W.C. Handy "discovered" it being played at the turn of the 20th Century by a farm labourer (or "loose-jointed Negro" to use his exact words) at a Southern train station with a guitar, and a knife used as a slide. From Handy's account, it is clear that the fundamental signatures of the blues were already there in the labourer's ballad the slurred and bent notes, the call-and-response between voice and guitar, the repeated first bar, the rhythmic structure and the telling of a bittersweet tale.
Since then, the formats, the performers, the instruments, and the lyrical content have all mutated and moved on but those elements remain the foundations upon which the whole pyramid, not only of contemporary blues but all of present day western music, still stands.
The comparison of Toure with Hooker perhaps arises from the fact that both usually stay within a single chord, and sculpt their creations with nuances of rhythm and modulation. A common denominator is the significance of silences and stop-times that are frozen in between what is said and played. The differences are that Toure, like many African musicians, is a multi-instrumentalist and polyglot (he sang in 11 languages!), and sometimes relies on polyrhythms, harmonies and traditional African instruments (such as the calabash, the njarka and congas) besides his guitar.
Hooker, on the other hand, has his guitar, his gravelly voice, and a metronome that doubles as his boots. Only very late in his career did backing musicians begin to appear on his recordings.
Ali Farka learnt guitar as a teenager, encouraged by Fodeba Keita, the Guinean founder of the Ballets Africaine. He first recorded commercially only in the Seventies, and drew worldwide attention during the British "world music" boom of the Eighties. BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw tracked down his music, and his first album, self-titled, in 1988 was distributed worldwide, causing immediate sensation.
His London encounter with producer Nick Gold of World Circuit Records resulted in a partnership that oversaw all his subsequent international releases.
Ali Farka's global stature was cemented by the Grammy-winning Talking Timbuktu partnership with Ry Cooder, and he began appearing at music festivals all over the world (e.g., the WOMAD world music festival in Seattle in 2000, where he performed with Bonnie Raitt). But he hailed from a long West African tradition of griots, who are hereditary minstrels, oral historians, and healers. He regarded music as a spiritual pursuit, and hated making money off it. So he took two long sabbaticals from commercial recording to tend to his rice farm. He broke his first silence with the 1999 album Niafunke which returns to pure African roots as a counterpoint to the fusion of his earlier Talking Timbuktu. He retreated again soon thereafter, but was back with a bang last year with a double CD compilation of his '80s material entitled Red and Green. In 2003 Martin Scorcese produced a multi-part TV series to mark the American Year of the Blues, and Ali Farka features in two of the episodes.
Last year also saw the release of In The Heart of the Moon, netting him his second Grammy just about a month ago. There are only about 10 albums of his that are internationally available, and those are also pretty hard to come by. I procured both Niafunke and Talking Timbuktu abroad, and would strongly encourage music distributors in India to seek out World Circuit Records and stock their catalogue. A Hindustani music fanatic I know was completely bowled over by Ali Farka's music, and informs me that the scale he sings corresponds to raga Hamsadhvani, so perhaps there is an ethereal echo of our music in his singing too.
Unfortunately, the great man lost his long battle with bone cancer on March 7, and as Mali's Culture Minister Oumar Sissoko reports, they have been flooded with emails from across the world to mourn his passing.
Send this article to Friends by
Chennai and Tamil Nadu