Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has often been referred to as a missing link between the blues and traditional music of West Africa. While Toure's guitar playing and singing have elements in common with both the blues and traditional African music, that statement is an oversimplification.
Ali Farka Toure is actually a mechanic by profession and considers his music secondary. While blues may be a solid foundation for Toure, he has forged a style all his own. Reviewing his album, The Source, Sing Out! stated that "his right-hand patterns would drive even the most accomplished bluesman screaming into the night and he seems less interested in singing about rambling, gambling, and fooling around than in chronicling the construction of a new irrigation system for the village of Dof ana (a project that took him off the road and out of the studio for more than a year)."
"The Sky Opens Up"
Toure is a native of Niafenke, a small village in a remote region of Northern Mali. The first instrument he learned to play as a child was the single-stringed gurkel, a gourd covered with cowhide and fitted with a neck and rattles. This instrument, which is Toure's favorite, has ritual functions; he told Guitar Player, "the sky opens up, and knowledge and power descend on the player." However, he also warned that, "it attacks you fast. If you don't take certain measures, it can even cause mental illness." Toure later taught himself the n'jarka, a single-string fiddle, and began playing the guitar in 1956 after seeing Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba.
Understanding Ali Farka Toure's music requires an understanding of the differences between his African culture and the culture in which American and European musicians emerge. In some African regions, musical training is passed down from generation to generation among the griots. Author Bill Barlow defines griots as "talented musicians and folklorists designated to be the oral carriers of their people's culture...Griots preserved the history, traditions, and mores of their respective tribes and kinship groups through songs and stories." However, Toure is not a griot, so he is more ambivalent about playing music. He told Guitar Playern 1990, "My family weren't griots, so I never got any training. This is a gift I have; God doesn't give everybody the ability to play an instrument. Music is a spiritual thinghe force of sound comes from the spirit."
Ali Farka Toure has been performing primarily in public since the late 1970s, when he backed American blues legend John Lee Hooker on a tour of France. He's had several album releases in Europe before his self-titled American debut. A Village Voice article illustrated the difference between the two guitarists' music, "[Toure] doesn't crank out one-chord boogies like his idol. It's as if he merely hints at the possibility before meandering off in other directions." A Guitar Player writer eloquently debunked the "missing link" hype with the statement, "While Ali Farka Toure's song point up the shared lineage of the music of the Mississippi Delta and the African savanna, the explanation for these similarities is not nearly as mysterious as some ethnomusicologists would prefer. Toure, like many other Africans, heard [John Lee] Hooker, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and others on dance-hall jukeboxes."
Cooder and Toure
With his 1992 album The Source, Ali Farka Toure began to gain commercial and artistic recognition. It topped the Billboard World Music chart for eleven weeks, helped in part by guest appearances from American bluesman Taj Mahal and guitarist Ry Cooder. In a Billboard profile, Toure's manager Nick Gold spoke of the logistics involved with recording him. Ali Farka Toure does not have a telephone, so Gold sends faxes to Mali's capital, Bamako, which are helicoptered to Toure's village. As far as getting other musicians, Gold said it was difficult "because the musicians live in various parts of the north of Mali, and travel is not easy. You have to send a messenger out and hope that people will show up."
During a brief American tour in 1994 with Ry Cooder, the rapport between the two guitarists was such that they completed an album together in four days. The result, Talking Timbuktu, was the 1994 Down Beat Critics' Poll's "Beyond Album of the Year" Award. Sing Out! praised Cooder's production on the album: "As a producer, Cooder makes few of the mistakes common to this type of venture. He does not try to alter Toure's playing in any way, but takes the songs and builds arrangements around them. And his guitar playing does not intrude."
A Sense of Well-Being
Ry Cooder described the making of Talking Timbuktuto Guitar Player; "You'd think Ali's just goofing and jamming, but they're all tunes, because these musicians don't jam. Americans do, but Africans don't. They don't just blow; they play a song. And he says his melodies are ancient melodies and they have a purpose." A typical track from Talking Timbuktu is "Gomni," a song about an individual's place in the community. Toure describes it in the liner notes, "You have to work hard to achieve a sense of well being. You should dedicate your life to the work which brings you happiness. When the community needs you, you should not turn a blind eye. Every job has its worth and everyone should make their contribution."
Ali Farka Toure, Mango, 1989.
African Blues, Shanachie, 1990.
The Source, Hannibal, 1992.
Talking Timbuktu, Hannibal, 1994.
Bandolobourou, Safari Ambience.
Sabou Yerkoy, Safari Ambience.
Barlow, William, Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, Temple University Press, 1989.
Billboard, October 16, 1993; October 30, 1993; July 9, 1994.
Down Beat, August 1990; October 1993; August 1994; October 1994.
Guitar Player, August 1990; June 1994.
Sing Out!, Volume 38, number 3; Volume 39, number 2.
Village Voice, May 16, 1989.
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