Ali Farka Toure

'King of the African Blues' who declined an orthodox music career to tend his farm by the Niger


Ali Ibrahim "Farka" Touré, guitarist and farmer: born Kanau, Mali 1939; twice married (12 children); died Bamako 6 March 2006.

Ali Farka Touré was the greatest guitarist ever to come out of West Africa - the King of the African Blues. His ascent to global fame at the end of the 1980s coincided with a sudden explosion of interest in what came to be known as "world music". This widespread thirst for sounds from beyond the Anglo-Saxon rock and pop mainstream, especially those coming out of Africa and Latin America, fuelled the Malian guitarist's success. But his stylish entrance on to the world stage also provoked widespread wonder among fans of the blues and anyone with a passing interest in the black roots of rock'n'roll.

Touré was hailed as the missing link between West Africa and the Mississippi Delta. He let the world analyse and speculate but in his own mind there was no doubt who had influenced whom: "I am the root and the trunk. All they have is branches and leaves."

One of the many Western musicians who welcomed Ali Farka Touré as a quasi-historical revelation was Ry Cooder. The pair collaborated on the Grammy award-winning Talking Timbuktu (1994), which has become one of the most successful African music albums in history. Weeks before his death, Touré clinched his second Grammy award, this time in collaboration with the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, for the album In the Heart of the Moon.

Two Grammies in one life for a singer and guitarist who comes from a place proverbial for its remoteness is an achievement that should inspire awe. But Touré never succumbed, as have so many other African music stars, to the neon lure of the good life in one of Europe's big capitals. "On my ID card it says I'm an artist, but in fact I'm a farmer," he pronounced emphatically.

To get to grips with the Touré phenomenon, you have to travel to the dusty landscape of northern Mali, where the great Niger river cuts a cool emerald-green path through the parched shrublands of the Sahel. Born Ali Ibrahim Touré in 1939 in the small adobe-built village of Kanau near Gourma Rharous, he was the first of his mother's 10 children to survive beyond infancy. To encourage this tenacious new life, his family gave him the nickname "Farka", which means "donkey" in the language of the Songhai people to whom he belonged.

His father was killed whilst fighting for the French in the Second World War, and the Touré family decamped south to the small town of Niafunké on the banks of the Niger. It was to be Ali Farka's home for the rest of his life. The young boy wasn't schooled but instead grew up working in the fields, and listening to music at weddings, circumcision feasts and child naming ceremonies. He was brought up a Muslim but also had a deep intimacy with the animist spirits or ghimbala that are said to live in the great river.

After a brief apprenticeship as a tailor, Touré started giving more and more of his energy to music. He mastered the ngoni, a traditional lute and the njarka, a one-string fiddle, while absorbing a huge repertoire of songs belonging to the many distinct ethnic groups that inhabited the Timbuktu region: Songhai, Peul, Bozo, Dogon, Tamashek and Bambara. In 1956, at a performance of the National Ballet of Guinea, Touré was dumbstruck by the skills of the Malinke guitarist Fodeba Keita. He began to transpose the licks and melodies of traditional music on to that most modern and universal of instruments, and the Ali Farka Touré guitar style was born.

After working as a part-time taxi driver and car mechanic, Touré had a fortuitous meeting with the great West African writer and intellectual Amadou Hampâté Bâ, who took him on a field recording trip in 1959. When Mali gained its independence in 1960, Touré joined one of the regional cultural troupes set up by the new president Modibo Keita to foster pride in local African culture, and became the manager of Troupe 117.

In 1968, Touré was invited to Sofia in Bulgaria, to perform at a music festival alongside his fellow Malian guitarists Keletigui Diabate and Djelimady Tounkara. It was there that he bought his first guitar. In 1970 he moved to Bamako, the capital, and clinched a job as a studio engineer at the National Radio Mali. There Touré hustled his way on to the airwaves, and his broadcasts of traditional music became immensely popular. He also began to serenade the nation with his new hybrid guitar style, no doubt invigorated by the James Brown, Jimmy Smith, Albert King and John Lee Hooker albums passed to him by a student friend. He later said that he was struck by the deep affinities between the music of John Lee Hooker and the traditional styles of the Touareg nomads of the Sahara desert.

Touré sent copies of his broadcasts to the Son Afric label in Paris, and in 1976 his début album Farka was released, the first of seven albums for Son Afric and Sonodisc. The sixth, known as the "Red Album", thanks to the colour of its cover, became a favourite among cognoscenti in London, including Anne Hunt who ran the World Circuit Arts touring company. She invited Touré to perform in the UK in 1987, and the secret of his magical talent was out.

In order to fulfil a demand for something to listen to at home among the many curious fans who went to those early shows, Hunt set up the World Circuit label, along with the A&R man, and Touré's long-term friend and producer, Nick Gold. Thus Touré was not only responsible for creating a unique musical style but also had a hand in launching the most successful world music label in the world. Thanks to the release of a string of acclaimed albums on World Circuit, including The River (1990) and The Source (1992), on which Touré duetted with the American blues veteran Taj Mahal, the Lion of Niafunké's fame spread and he toured extensively in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia. In 1991 he actually met and played with John Lee Hooker; by all accounts the rendezvous was respectful but reserved.

As fame and its voracious demands increased, Touré had to face the fundamental dilemma of his life. What was to be more important: his music or his farming? The 350 hectares of rice fields that he so painstakingly irrigated and cultivated along the banks of the river Niger near Niafunké finally proved to be the greater priority, and he devoted more and more time to his beloved home turf.

From 1997 onwards he announced his retirement from music a number of times but Nick Gold always managed to lure him back. Gold travelled to Niafunké in 1999 with the sound engineer Jerry Boys to record the wonderful Niafunké in a dilapidated old agricultural school on the outskirts of town. In 2004 Touré was appointed mayor.

In 2003 he featured in Martin Scorsese's seminal study of the blues Feel Like Going Home, and he performed his first concerts in years in Brussels and Nice in 2005. Even though the scourge of cancer had already begun to manifest itself, Touré kept doggedly going. In one monumental splurge of creativity, Gold recorded three timeless albums at the Mandé Hotel in Bamako in 2005. In the Heart of the Moon has already received the Grammy; a recording of Toumani Diabate's revolutionary Symmetric Orchestra is due out soon; but we'll have to wait a bit longer for Ali Farka Touré's last solo album, which Nick Gold describes as his best ever.

Andy Morgan

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