Ali Farka Toure
comes from Mali and is known as the most important interpreter of
“African blues”. It’s easy to compare him with the famous American
blues guitarists such as John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins, but Ali
Farka Toure has definitely his own style and is closer to blues’ roots
than his American counterparts. When Toure takes up his guitar it is easy
to hear from whence the music form originates.
Ali Farka Toure has enjoyed success worldwide over the past few year,
especially with the Grammy Award winning “Talkin’ Timbuktu”, made
with Ry Cooder in 1994, and pushed Toure up among the most talked about
African artist. Ali himself felt this drained him of inspiration and
weakened his musical connection with Africa. He retreated therefore for
several years to his home by the river Niger in Northern Mali, where he
Ali Farka Toure plays in recumbent rhythm with accompaniment of foot
tramping or hand clapping, or careful backing from his group ASCO, that
largely keeps to traditional acoustic string instruments, calabashes and
single string violin, that Toure himself also plays. Toure sings in
several African languages, eleven to be precise, and the lyrics concern,
according to him, “education, work, love and society around me.”
Ali Farka Toure is deeply rooted in African tradition and mythology, and
believes he is a strong musician because strong powers will it. In an
interview with the Englishman Richard Trillo, he states that once, at the
age of twelve, he suddenly could not lift his left leg and had to stand on
one leg with his calabash violin in his hand for two hours. The day after
this he saw a black and white snake with a peculiar mark on its head, and
this snake curled around Toure’s head. He shook himself and ran away.
But after this he became aggressive and difficult for several years. When
he began to play music again it was well received by the spirits. Some
years later in 1956 he decided to learn to play the guitar.
Ali Farka Toure has been called the
"John Lee Hooker of Africa": if it's often said that the blues
are a reworking of African tribal rhythms to fit the African-American
experience, then Toure has aligned the blues back to African life.
Since he was born into nobility, a musical
career was strongly discouraged in his native Timbuktu. Like any good
bluesman, Toure rebelled and took up the gurkel, a single-stringed African
guitar chosen for its supposed supernatural abilities. He also mastered
the n’jarka, a single-string fiddle, which can be heard in many of his
performances. In 1956, he saw a show by the great Guinean guitarist Ketita
Fodeba, which so impressed him that he began adapting traditional gurkel
songs for the acoustic guitar.
But the real transformation came when he
encountered the likes of Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins in the late 1960s.
At first, Toure thought that these were simply Americans playing Malian
music -- even after he realized the truth, he remained convinced that the
roots of American blues were based in Malian traditions. While working as
a sound engineer at Radio Nationale du Mali during the 1970s, Toure’s
guitar went electric with Hooker-esque, mid-tempo, stomping rhythms.
Toure’s music invokes the low-pitched
melodies of African singing -- in several languages -- combined with a
raunchy, often minimally accompanied downbeat. According to the artist
himself, his songs are about “education, work, love, and society.” But
as blues-based and broad-themed as these songs are, they escaped Western
attention for many years, in part because of their foreign-language
However, the burgeoning world music trend
that hit the West in the late 1980s proved fertile ground for a crossover.
He began touring the United States and Europe, sometimes collaborating
with acts like Taj Mahal and the Chieftans. His unique style subsequently
attracted the attention of Ry Cooder, that peripatetic force in world
music. In 1994, they recorded "Talking Timbuktu" together, which
brought Toure the most mainstream attention yet and promptly won him a
As Taj Mahal has commented, "That guy
can play! He's got it. He knows where it started and he knows where he's
going." It is a true testimony to modern music that it has come
full-circle, returning to its roots with an entirely new flavor.
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