Africa's accidental hero

Ali Farka Toure's breakthrough discs are being re-released. Robin Denselow listens again to some startling recordings
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The Independent Culture

In the mid-1980s, out of curiosity, the DJ Andy Kershaw picked up a record in a red sleeve from a bargain bin in a Parisian record store. When Kershaw played it at home "there was one of those 'what the hell is this?' moments".

The record, called Red after the colour of the album sleeve, was by Ali Farka Toure, and is one of the more historically important recordings in African music: it introduced Toure, now the Grammy-winning godfather of desert blues, to a British audience, and in the process provided the record industry with a reminder of the extraordinary music to be found in Mali, on the edge of the Sahara. Once Kershaw began featuring it on his show, the reaction was extraordinary. "It hit a nerve and the letters started pouring in from people wanting his records". Next week, the album will be available once again - surely one of the reissues of the year.

Ali Farka Toure comes from Niafunke, on the Niger river in north-western Mali, and he had already worked as a farmer, boatman, mechanic and tailor before he arrived in the capital, Bamako, to be a sound engineer at Radio Mali. He was already known locally as a musician, but here he was able to perform on the radio and record his songs, for the radio station then owned the only recording studio in the country.

He never went to school and could not read or write, but had enormous confidence. In 1975 he began sending tapes to a recording company in France, along with photographs of himself. Sono Disc were far-sighted enough to appreciate his potential. They brought out a series of seven albums, all entitled Ali Farka Toure, but it was only the sixth - the one with the bright red cover, first released in 1984 - that established his reputation outside the African community.

His very earliest sessions have appeared on the 1996 compilation Radio Mali, but only now has Red been digitally remastered and re-released as a CD. It has been packaged with the final recording from his radio station days, first released in 1988, which for obvious reasons is entitled Green. Both sets still sound like timeless African blues classics.

They both centre around Toure's distinctive, relaxed and bluesy guitar lines, but there are some differences. The opening song of Red, "La Drogue", starts with a stuttering guitar introduction, then settles down into an easy-going riff against which he shows off his dry, rasping (and at times rapid-fire, half-spoken) vocals. The only backing is provided by the rattle of a calabash percussion player, Hammer Sankare, who at times echoes the vocals back at him, as on the rousing song "Timbindy". There are strong melodies, bursts of insistent, rhythmic playing and some fine improvised solos and powerful singing, as on the gently gutsy and insistent Laleiche. The second album, "Green", again features Sankare on calabash, but here Toure's guitar is matched against the n'goni, the African four-stringed lute, for a series of often more sad-edged, mournful and traditional pieces. Both Red and Green are remarkable for Toure's distinctive and virtuoso playing, and his quite extraordinary confidence.

Once the record started getting radio play, the search was on to track down the man himself. Anne Hunt, who worked for the World Circuit label, went to Bamako and asked if she could meet Toure. By then he had given up his job as a sound engineer to return to his village, but by chance he heard an appeal broadcast over the radio that "a woman from Europe was looking for him" and learned that he had acquired cult status in Britain.

Western fans were intrigued by his classy, self-assured playing, and the remarkable echoes of the blues and similarities to John Lee Hooker. It was a comparison that initially boosted his career but was soon to infuriate him, as he insisted he played African music, not blues, and "this music has been taken from here".

He was the first surviving child in his family - his nine elder brothers all died in infancy - and he was given the name Farka, or donkey, because of his strength. His family disapproved of him becoming a musician; he learned to play after watching the traditional religious spirit ceremonies on the banks of the river.

He started out playing the djerkel, the single-stringed guitar, along with the njarka, the traditional single-stringed violin, and the n'goni. He soon became an expert, but the ceremonies took their toll. "He became possessed and had visions", says World Circuit's Nick Gold, who produced Toure's 1987 album and has worked with him ever since. "He started speaking in tongues and was in danger of harming himself. He was sent to another village for several months to be looked after, and once he started to play again there were always certain pieces he would never perform". He still sees a strong connection between and religion and music, and he once told me "I have a gift from God I have to make use of and give to other people".

He switched from the traditional instruments to the guitar after hearing the great guitarist Keita Fodeba, from the National Ballet of Guinea. He has always insisted that he was merely playing traditional n'goni styles on the Western instrument. But he was also influenced by Western blues and soul after a friend in Bamako in the late Sixties played him records by James Brown, Albert King, Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker.

He may have been confident about his playing, but he was always a reluctant star, simply because there are so many other things that interest him apart from music. He toured the world and won a Grammy for the Talking Timbuktu album that he recorded with Ry Cooder, but right from the start he would often talking about "retiring" - which didn't mean stopping work, but stopping work as a musician so that he could go back to his village in Niafunke and continue farming. When I met him in 1995 at a (still-unreleased) recording session with the great Malian singer Oumou Sangare, he told me that "music is not enough, even with a Grammy. I couldn't live without the farm. I miss it".

From then on, he has spent more and more of his time at home. Gold says "he got slightly cynical, thinking that audiences were cheering when they didn't know what he was talking about, and he got sick to death of people asking him about John Lee Hooker and the blues"

His most recent album before the re-release of Red & Green was recorded in his village on a mobile studio, because the guitarist insisted on putting farming before music. Released in 1999, it was simply titled Niafunke. These days his life there is not exactly a peasant existence: when Gold visited him this summer he found Toure had invested his royalties in "heavy irrigation work, motor pumps and tractors, so the farm is now green at the right time of year. He grows enough wheat and fruit and vegetables to feed the whole region".

He's also involved in politics, after this summer becoming the local mayor "so he's responsible for a budget, health, education, agriculture and cleaning... he's pissed off that there seem to be blue plastic bags everywhere. And he wants more education in the schools about African history and the history of the region, not just that of France and Europe."

Ali Farka Toure has at last been lured away from Niafunke, not to give a high-profile concert tour (as many promoters have requested) but to appear next month at a "concert exceptionnel" in the little French town of Privas, in the Ardèche.

He agreed to play there because he will have a chance to talk to local farmers about irrigation, and about the problems of those Malian farmers who were encouraged to grow cotton only to find that their markets had been destroyed by Western policies of subsidising their own produce or dumping cheap cotton in Africa. He was also lured, it seems, by the chance of boar-hunting. One of his favourite occupations in Mali is to drive around with a car window open, shooting at jackals and rabbits.

More surprising still is the news that Africa's reluctant superstar has also recorded two new albums, both to be released next year. His concern that no-one around Niafunke was studying local history led him to start building up a library of the works of local griots, the hereditary singers who for generations have acted as musical historians. This in turn inspired him to start sending demo tapes to Gold ("something he had never done before") and the recording, in Mali, of an album on which he is backed by n'goni players, and which has similarities with some of the tracks on the Green album. He was concerned that young people didn't know the griots' work, and that it needed to be preserved.

In the course of this, he was encouraged to record a track with his old friend, the kora player Toumani Diabate, and it worked so well that he recorded a second album with Toumani and his band. They may play together in Belgium in the New Year.

As for future British tours, there are no plans at the moment for Ali Farka Toure to leave his farm to play here. But Monsieur Le Mayor de Niafunke has certainly not put down his guitar for good, and the Red & Green album is a powerful and timely reminder of how his strange career started.

'Red & Green' is released on the World Circuit label on Monday