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

Sport
Brazilian fans watch the match for third place between Brazil and Netherlands
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: Dutch pile on the misery in third place playoff
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
Arts and Entertainment
books The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?