POP MUSIC / Notes from the global village: Ry Cooder making an album with Ali Farka Toure? The scholar from LA and the bluesman from Timbuktu? Philip Sweeney made some calls

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The Independent Online
Now here's a global culture story to get one's teeth into - dust off the Marshall McLuhan quotations and prepare to spout on about the unifying force of music etc . . . Straight off the phone from Ry Cooder, munching an apple nonchalantly in his attorney's office in Los Angeles and dial West Africa. Hey presto - the guitarist Ali Farka Toure, unwinding in front of a Mali-Zare football match on the television at his record company in the Malian capital, Bamako, where he's just dropped in to make a few phone calls. Toure lives in a village near Timbuktu on the edge of the Sahara, and despite the commendable civic pride he displays in the quote on his new record sleeve (Timbuktu is 'right at the heart of the world') the fact remains it's a 1000-km Land Rover drive - one day non-stop is the normal method - from the phone.

Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder are the joint stars of a new record, Talking Timbuktu, which is already creating a considerable buzz in the first week of its release: deservedly, because, discounting jazz, it constitutes an instant member of the minuscule list of truly interesting record collaborations between Africa and American musicians.

For Cooder, the project is entirely logical. Over 30 years of career, his meticulous musical scholarship has widened from its epicentre in the southern United States over the Tex-Mex border, with the accordionist Flaco Jimenez, into the Caribbean, with the Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, the Pacific, with the Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui, and up to the Far East, with the Okinawan roots rocker Shukichi Kina. Last year, his album of improvised duets with V M Bhatt, a young Indian guitarist from 'the Indian equivalent of the chitlin' circuit' - exactly Cooder's preferred socio-musical niche - was one of the most successful 'world music' albums of 1993. His latest movie soundtrack, for the Walter Hill western Geronimo, deploys Mongolian throat singers and a Navajo flautist. Asked why it's taken so long to get round to mother Africa, Cooder's reply is Californian: 'I've been looking to run into him for 10 years now, but I guess the timing wasn't right. Things seem to happen in a random way but there's a pattern to them really . . .'

Of all West African musicians, Ali Farka Toure is the most naturally suited to working with Cooder, because of a powerful affinity with the Mississippi Delta blues. This affinity is part innate and part adopted, with the exact proportion remaining mysterious. Unusually, given the preponderance of Mandingo and Bambara ethnicity among Malian artistes known abroad - Salif Keita, Kassy Mady, Oumou Sangare, et al - Toure comes from the Songhai people of the North of Mali, and his repertoire in Songhai, Tamashek and Peul languages as well as Bambara and Mandingo, reflect Timbuktu's one-time role as a Saharan crossroads. Born in 1939 to an upper- caste, non-musician family, Toure started playing traditional hide and horsehair instruments - the njurkel proto-guitar, and the n'jarka one-string fiddle - before eventually graduating to the guitar. For years he combined membership - later leadership - of various state-sponsored cultural troupers with a succession of jobs - river ambulance boatman, radio technician, farmer; and he still regards agriculture as his first vocation. As of this Monday, he was heavily into planting - onions, carrots, turnips - 'I've invested in land, because land is more durable than money.'

Tours first began to attract European attention in the early 1980s, via six albums he made with a French company after concerts in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and finally France. His British debut in 1987 and subsequent association with the small UK label World Circuit, occurred after a London promoter, Ann Hunt, had gone to Bamako and contacted Toure via a message broadcast over Malian state radio.

Tall, stately, blue-robed, accompanied only by a shy and deeply funky young villager slapping an upturned calabash, Toure immediately attracted the epithet 'Malian bluesman', indeed, 'Malian John Lee Hooker'. With justification, because, above all on the brooding Tamashek and Songhai songs, Toure's guitar style, with its muted, haunting bass riffs and its back-strummed chords, is a dead ringer for Hooker's. Toure, however, while acknowledging the great Mississippian's records as a major influence, insists on the African ascendancy of the blues, and above all of Mali's. 'This system spread from Mali to the West African coast, and then by slavery to America.'

Cooder isn't being drawn into ethno-musicological speculation. 'I'm a practitioner, not an academic . . . my primary focus is sound and music . . . When I first heard Ali's record, I thought he was playing the blues backwards . . . but I don't think of him as a blues player now . . . I think of him as a rugged individual, but also one of the last of the real rural African bush musicians . . .'

Cooder was introduced to Toure in London 18 months ago, guested at three concerts by the Malian in California, and recorded the album as producer / session player in three days last September. At their first meeting, Toure spontaneously presented Cooder with a njurkel, his own treasured first instrument, which joined several hundred other exotic stringed instruments, plus a few saxes, in Cooder's collection. A Turkish cumbus, an Indian tamboura - Cooder plays it slide- style with a jam-jar - an 'electric vox guitar' ('like a Bill Wyman tear-drop bass with a bouzouki neck'), a giant box-shaped development of an African m'bira thumb piano built by one of a series of reclusive instrument inventors he patronises in California . . .

A number of these devices appear on Talking Timbuktu. The tamboura contributes a rattling drone behind 'Keito', a Songhai criticism of army recruitment in Africa. The m'bira injects 'a little sunlight' on Cooder's favourite track, 'Gomni', as Toure sings of the social obligation of work. Elsewhere, Cooder's restrained electric slide guitar highlights the blues side of traces such as 'Amandrai' and 'Ai Du' (the latter a mean, powerful tour de force with Toure's two Malian percussionists subtly reinforced by the drummer Jim Keltner, and Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown's wild electric viola part).

The spirit of John Lee Hooker, it must be said, still hovers, in the opening guitar phrases of 'Amandrai', where even Hamuna Sankare's tersely clacking calabash sounds like the laconic slap of a Hookerian boot on a studio floor. The way to resolve any lingering ethno-musicological doubts as to who influenced whom, Ali Farka Toure assures me, is to consult the '2,000-year-old documentation on human migration' in the Bibliotheque Hamed Baba in Timbuktu. At the time of going to press, requests for expenses to do so had met with a surprising editorial silence. Watch this space, though.

(Photograph omitted)

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