Ali Farka Touré: Spirit of the blues

Ali Farka Touré's music has always drawn on his Malian heritage - and his blues roots. He talks to Tim Cumming
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The Independent Culture


In L'Age du Soud, an African restaurant in Brussels, there is a local camera crew filming at the bar when the "Lion of Niafunke", Ali Farka Touré, and his six-strong band sweep into the restaurant in full African robes and settle into a long table. Before the food comes, the musicians break out into a clattering rhythm with their knives and forks, and the camera swings round. The following evening Ali will join his band on a European stage for the first time since he announced his retirement from music in 1999. With two new albums after years of silence, it is a major comeback from one of Africa's greatest musicians. The camera crew has a new story to report.

"I've always loved watching him play," says Nick Gold, the producer who has worked with Ali for almost two decades. "I saw him at the Town and Country Club in 1987, and he's exactly the same as he was then; he's so at one with his instrument."

It seems apt that Touré is breaking his silence six years afterNiafunke with Toumani Diabaté, the same musician who accompanied him on those first London dates, and who is now regarded as the finest player of the kora (the 21-string African harp). In fact, when World Circuit - Nick Gold's record label - came to Mali in search of Ali in 1986, it was Toumani who broadcast an appeal on Radio Mali for the semi-retired guitarist to make contact.

"I was Ali's translator, helper and guide," he tells me between studio sessions for his new solo album and the debut of The Symmetric Orchestra, the band he leads at his Bamako night club. "When he came to London he was completely alone. I supported him on the calabash, and we played just once on the kora and guitar. I knew that sometime in the future I would have a project with him."

It would take the best part of 20 years before the two finally came together, Ali with his acoustic guitar, Toumani on the kora. The inspiration for the duets came during sessions for Ali's solo album. Ali was playing one of Toumani's signature tunes, "Kaira" (Peace), and had tried, without satisfaction, to record a second guitar part. Nick Gold suggested calling in Toumani.

"They sat and chatted a bit as the kora was tuned and they rehearsed for five minutes to get the microphones right, and then off they went," says Gold. "And right at the dying cadence, the downstroke of that tune, Ali immediately started playing another. And at the end I suggested there was a whole record in this, and they both said, 'Of course there is.'"

The album's source material is drawn largely from the jamana kura (new age) pop songs of Mali in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Jamana kura was as much an attitude of feeling and freedom as it was a repertoire, and the pieces they chose range from love songs to ancient griot praise songs from the manding traditions of southern Mali. "Everybody knows Ali for playing the blues," says Toumani, "songs from the north, the music where the blues came from. But people will be very surprised at hearing him play manding music."

The album is released in the order it was recorded, Ali supplying the frame for Toumani to weave his complex figures. "We sat like we are sitting now, says Toumani. "Ali had his guitar and I had my kora and we didn't want to stop playing. We were going deeper and deeper, always different, and we had to keep going."

Together, the two musicians tap into a shared, unconscious source of boundless invention, combining melodies so enchanting they remind you of nursery rhymes, with improvisations that expand those melodies into great, uncharted flights of imagination. Ry Cooder, who partnered Ali on the Grammy-award winning 1994 album Talking Timbuktu, and contributed atmospheric kawai piano to some of the new tracks, called it the most beautiful music he had ever heard.

"Time has given me the opportunity to dig and to explore," says Ali of his new recordings. "With Toumani, we don't need to speak." He talks of the duets as if it they had simply always been there, waiting for the strings to be plucked. "I say what we will play" - he claps his hands - "and it just happened. And it is very, very fine. And in one take, yes. There is no doubt about that."

"I stopped touring and performing because if you want to perform you have to compose music first," Ali says of his years of silence. "I had too many things on my mind to make music." These included tasks such as setting up schools and health centres around Niafunke, the north Malian town on the banks of the Niger where he grew up. After more than a decade of working for Radio Mali as an engineer and performer, he had returned there in 1980 to be a farmer. Last year, he was elected mayor.

"I work a lot from daily events," he says of his inspiration. "The way I live on a daily basis, and when I actually play the music, I want to educate the people, especially the new generation, to give them my point of view on the history of the area and the culture. If I wanted to," he adds, "I could turn a new album out every month. But you need to give some time to yourself and forget things."

Though in the West, Ali is seen as a blues player, an African John Lee Hooker, his inspiration and techniques are rooted in songrai, puel and other traditions. "It all comes from the history and tradition of Mali," he says. "It comes from the heart and the blood."

"What I do," he continues, "I do with spirituality. You see me now talking, and then when you see me on stage, that spirit kicks in, and I become someone different. And when the concert's finished, all that disappears."

'Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté: In the Heart of the Moon' is on World Circuit, Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté play the Barbican on 29 June