ALI FARKA TOURÉ (MALI)
Malian musician Ali Farka Toure’s passing from cancer (aged 66) in March 2006 attracted major obituaries in The Guardian, Independent and Times (New York & London) alongside TV coverage on BBC1’s Newsnight and Channel 4 News. Not bad for an illiterate farmer from one of the world’s poorest nations who never chased after musical success and seemed to view his international achievements (two Grammy awards, over a million CDs sold, championed by the likes of Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt) with a certain contempt: Toure was a proud African and his experience of the West only served to convince him it was spiritually bereft. Spirit is an important word when discussing Toure – he spoke regularly of spirits inhabiting his music and, while a Muslim, remained strongly attached to West African animist beliefs.
You can hear the spirits calling on his very last album, Savane (released after his death in 2006). Here Toure sings and lays down eerie guitar patterns while surrounded by ngoni and calabash and Pee Wee Ellis’s muted saxophone. The atmosphere’s heavy with ritual, African trance music burning through the night. Toure, like many guitarists of his generation, learnt from American blues and soul recordings. Nicknamed the “African John Lee Hooker”, his music possesses a hypnotic blues drone, drawing the listener into an African netherworld, one strange yet intoxicating, harsh but beautiful, desert blues.
Savane is equal to Toure’s finest recordings, music that stands outside time, empowered with lived experience. Toure was an African giant, a musician who prefered to stay home in Niafunke, using his royalties to develop the village’s agriculture. That two albums of his recordings were released on a small French label in the 1980s and thus brought Toure to the attention of BBC DJ Andy Kershaw who then introduced Toure’s music to the fledgling World Circuit label who brought Ali to Europe and so introduced him to the West is one of those engaging coincidences that the universe sometimes throws up. Ali Farka Toure is gone – long live the music of Ali Farka Toure!
Ali Farka Toure on the web
Album Review on bbc.co.uk/music
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