WORLD MUSIC: Ali Farka Toure Bozar Brussels ooooo

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The Independent Culture
THE TANTALISING smell of African cuisine that wafted through the Bozar concert hall in Brussels was a foretaste of what was coming as the band members emerged one by one - the high and low n'goni players, followed by a guitarist and conga and kalabash players - each instrument thickening the stew of the opening song's irresistible momentum.

Finally, the man himself appeared. It's Ali Farka Toure's first European concert in more than five years, and he replies to the swell of applause that greets him with a high-pitched squeal of an opening note.

On previous visits, Toure has often brought only a kalabash player for company, but here he fronts a six-strong orchestra that's as formidable as any in Africa. With second guitarist "Little Ali" Mahassa behind him, the two combine high-strung melodic lines over the deeply African groove of songs such as "Mali" and the electrifying "Karaw", before Toure switches to acoustic to debut the irresistible simplicity of songs from his forthcoming solo album, including the lovely "Savane", and the percussive, angular "Mamouna".

Toure is the star and main focus, but he's often happy to play a supporting role, spinning his circular musical figures until the spirit takes him to hammer out some arresting lead lines that strike like white lightning through the multilayered musical reverie.

Bassekou Koyate, the brilliant high n'goni player (a traditional Malian instrument that looks as old as the Ark and sounds like a slurred oud) spars with the master in a series of magnificent call-and-response duets, and after the interval Toure is joined by the legendary kora player Toumani Diabate. The two have recorded an album of duets together, and tonight's double bill was a thrilling display of profound musical play from two of the country's greatest musical stars.

They perform three songs from the forthcoming album, opening them up like a box of treasures and treating the audience to some of the finest improvised music they are ever likely to hear. Paganini may have played the devil's violin, but Toumani's mastery of the kora leaves the devil well behind. The likes of "Debe", which features playing of almost supernatural invention around a compelling circular rhythm sustained by Toure, was one of the highlights of the evening's epic three-hour set.

Toure's band rejoins them for the third duet, "Dia", with the low n'goni player Mama Sissoko breaking out into a swirling dance as an ululating dancer from the wings is brought on, and the stage begins to resemble a party as much as a concert performance.

The night ends with two slow, exquisite desert blues, Toure casually throwing off electrifying guitar phrases before digging into his traditions by sawing out a little melody on the n'jerke, a one-stringed violin with a keening, dreamlike sound, backed by the multilayered mesmerism of the percussionists Souleymane Kane and Oumar Hamadoun Toure. As the musicians leave the stage, one hopes this one-off concert will not be Toure's last.