To listeners in the West, Ali Farka Toure is probably the most recognisable African guitarist there’s ever been. His collaborations with Ry Cooder and Toumani Diabaté earned him two Grammy awards, and he’s been internationally recognized as the Guitar God he undoubtedly was.
The song below serves as a brilliant introduction to his style. Like much of Toure’s output, it’s a traditional composition. His playing has a mesmerising quality, though the sudden melodic runs, jumping from the guitar like frightened spirits, never allow you to fully succumb to the hypnosis. A sweet layer of saxophone and the tap of a calabash are all the other ingredients the song needs, with his intensely spiritual voice acting as the cherry on top of an already delicious cake.
Born in 1939 by the banks of the Niger, the silver strip of water flowing perversely through Mali’s desert, Toure spent much of his life in the village of Niafunke, where he remained until his death in 2006. Although one of the larger villages in the region, Niafunke is a sleepy place where the majority of the population has the tough job of farming the arid land. The river is a source of trade, gossip, and something altogether stranger.
In Toure’s part of the world, the people believe the river to be the home of ghimbala– powerful spirits, each with their own back-story and character, who, in times of hardship or illness, have to be appeased through spirit ceremonies. Music is central to these ceremonies, and is played on traditional instruments such as the djerkel (single string guitar), n’jarka (single string violin) and n’goni (four string lute). The ceremonies fascinated the young Toure, and it was there, on the banks of the Niger, that his interest in music was born.
Having built himself his first djerkel at the age of 12, Toure spent much of his early life adding to the list of instruments he could play, as well as collecting a vast repertoire of material from people he met while working and travelling the region. A 1956 performance by the guitarist Keita Fodeba converted him to guitar. He found that it was easy for him to transpose the traditional songs to the new instrument, and by doing this his unique sound was born.
At the height of his popularity during the 90s, Toure’s hypnotic style earned him the nickname “The African John Lee Hooker,” and even today he’s still widely described as an African bluesman. This description only serves to muddy the waters (excuse the blues based pun), and it would be more accurate to describe John Lee Hooker as an American playing music of African origin. Hooker’s style, marked by its rumbling rhythm and mesmeric quality, is a transatlantic echo of the type of music Toure heard growing up on the banks of the Niger. Only difference is, the musicians Toure heard were playing the n’goni rather than the guitar. For anyone interested in this relationship between the blues and Africa, I would strongly recommend Scorsese’s documentary, “The Blues – Feel Like Going Home.” The filmmakers travelled to Niafunke to meet Ali, and caught him at his most relaxed, surrounded by his family in the land that he loved.
Ali Farka Toure was a spiritual man (he was known as a “child of the river,” the name given to those able to communicate with the ghimbala), and he cared little for success or “stardom.” Despite his international fame, and repeated offers of tour dates, Toure always preferred the hard, yet peaceful life of a farmer. He was so devoted to his land and his village (he became mayor in 2004, spending his own money on improvements) that at one point in his career the only way for his label to get a new record out of him was to travel to Niafunke, bringing the studio with them.
Although Ali’s music has deep roots in the country of his birth, as indeed do the lyrics, concerned as they often are with the ghimbala, anybody with a pair of ears and a soul to be moved can appreciate his songs, no matter where they are.
Although based on ancient traditions, the music he made is truly timeless.
Till next time, Kevin Baker
Note – Like almost everyone else writing about Ali Farka Toure on the internet , I am heavily indebted to Lucy Duran’s biography (updated by Nick Gold & Dave McGuire) which is available on the World Circuit website here: http://www.worldcircuit.co.uk/#Ali_Farka_Toure::Biography