World music: Farka Toure eschews the blues

Like the blues guitarist Robert Johnson, Ali Farka Toure had his life changed by an encounter with the supernatural. But don't tell the Malian guitarist that his African music has been influenced by the blues. It's the other way round. By Phil Johnson
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When Robert Johnson came face to face with the Devil at that proverbial crossroads outside Clarksdale, Mississippi one dark night in the Twenties, things weren't quite as bad as they seemed: he could have met Ali Farka Toure instead. The guitarist from Mali would easily, you feel, have seen off Johnson, the Devil and any number of hellhounds on their trail.

Looking lean and a little mean (if only because I'm late for our appointment), and at least 20 years younger than his age of 59, Farka Toure is clearly not a man to mess with. Back home in Mali, where he's the head honcho of his village, his idea of fun is riding across the desert in a jeep shooting jackals with one hand while the other holds the wheel. And if a straying bottleneck guitarist happened to cross his sights, Ali Farka Toure might well pull the trigger, because he can't abide all this talk about how his music must have been influenced by the blues.

It is, Farka Toure says wearily, in between puffs on his Marlboro, "une question habituel". He's sitting in the bar of a left-bank hotel in Paris, thousands of miles from his village of Niafunke, whose name provides the title for his new album. There's a red, tasselled cap on his head, and underneath the skirt of a purple robe his sandalled feet are so impressively lined and weathered that they look like two blocks of veined marble set on rubber-soled plinths. In reply to the habitual question, he says through his interpreter that it's all due to a terrible confusion.

"The blues was a name given by the United States to what for Ali is traditional African music brought there by slaves," the interpreter says. "As far as he is concerned, there are no black Americans, only black people in America who are there for historical reasons. Because they are lost, they don't know the original names for anything any more, so they call this music the blues." Ali nods vigorously, blows out a mouthful of smoke, and adds a coda. "When he hears the blues, he recognises it as African music, as the music from his region," the translator says. "He recognises it immediately, as anyone from his area would."

Ironically, Farka Toure came upon his own gifts through an encounter very similar to Robert Johnson's date with the Devil.

As he writes in a beautiful, poetic note on the sleeve of Radio Mali (an excellent collection of radio recordings he made in the Seventies), one night when he was 13 the spirits possessed him. He was walking along playing his monochord (a traditional one-stringed guitar) at 2am when he noticed "three little girls like steps of stairs, one higher than the other, and became rooted to the spot. The next day he saw a black- and-white snake that curled itself around his head. "I brushed it off, it fell into a hole. I fled. It was then that I started having attacks." After going to another village for a year and a half to be cured, he began playing again, and was "very well received by the spirits".

What sometimes sounds to us like Mississippi rather than Mali is only a very small part of Farka Toure's repertoire. On the whole his music is as varied as life itself, with different styles to suit different subjects and occasions.

As such it's also highly adaptable, which is one of the reasons for his success. Talking Timbuktu, the best-selling album that he recorded with the American guitarist Ry Cooder in 1994, and which went on to win a Grammy, was recorded in three days after only a morning's rehearsal. "There was no point in wasting time. To have rehearsed for any longer would have been like adding sugar to honey."

Once the blues question is out of the way, Ali seems much happier. "It's not the guitar that speaks," he says. "It's your fingers and your mind." Accordingly, when he encountered his first Western-style guitar, after having previously played only one-string instruments, he simply transposed the same notes to the new instrument. The first time Ali saw "le guitare moderne", he was, he says, extremely happy, and the date he bought his first instrument remains engraved in his mind: 21 April 1968. The attraction of the guitar was both its sound and its shape, he says, although he insists that the traditional one-stringer remains a powerful instrument, whose sound can go a very long way. But when he saw those five extra strings, he knew he could take things further.

For his latest album, Farka Toure has returned to his roots. Recorded in an abandoned building in Niafunke, where he has paid for the school bus and is helping to fund a new school to go with it (though there is still no electricity), it's full of songs about village life. "Niafunke is the base," the translator says. "It's where he learnt this culture. He says you can't pay for happiness but you have to recognise it and make sure others do too. He thinks Niafunke is where his inspiration comes from, and he wanted to pay homage to it."

Ali listens to the translation and then points meaningfully at his belly button. "Niafunke means `children of the same mother', and he says the village is his navel, the centre of his being." While they relate to his village, the songs also have a much wider resonance, calling upon the disparate dialects and cultures of all of West Africa right down to the Congo, following the borders of the old Songhai empire. The themes of his songs are, he says, health, education, agriculture, husbandry, love, reconciliation between tribes and between countries, racism, evolution and politics.

When I mention that African music is sometimes regarded as a kind of exotic essence in the West, displaced from its context, Ali says that if that is the case people haven't understood what is going on in Africa. You can change society through music, he says, and where there's injustice in the world, music must point it out. To do so is part of his job. As a famous musician in Mali, Ali has also begun to be sought out by pupils. "There was a Scottish man who came to learn to play the guitar," Ali recalls. "He stayed in the village for five months and learnt a lot, but he wanted to swim in the river and nearly drowned. He said they called him the Ali Farka Toure of Scotland."

`Niafunke' by Ali Farka Toure is released by World Circuit Records on Monday