The world's greatest living guitarist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Aug 5 08:59:49 MDT 2000

Last night (Aug. 4, 2000), I heard the greatest guitarist in the world.
Performing at Town Hall as part of a 3 day festival of African music
sponsored by the Knitting Factory, Ali Farka Toure and his 8 piece ensemble
demonstrated why the musicians of contemporary Mali are in the vanguard of
world music.

The music of Mali is very much a product of geographical and historical
circumstance. From indigenous Africa, it derives the rhythm and basic
improvisational approach. Since Mali was conquered by Moroccans in the 17th
century, its culture reflects Islamic influences as well. In the case of
Toure and Salif Keita--another well-known Malian singer--you hear the
declamatory phrasing of the muzzein, who calls the faithful to prayer. And,
finally, from the west you hear its greatest gift--that of popular music
whose influence comes from phonograph records rather than multinational
banks or the Marines.

For Toure, this would seem to mean American blues. When I first heard him
on the radio, I couldn't figure out whether Mali had spontaneously
generated its own kind of blues style or whether Toure had been listening
to American records. Subsequently I discovered that he considered American
blues musicians close relatives.

In a June 26, 1999 interview with the London Daily Telegraph, Toure
explains how this discovery was first made. In Bamako, Mali's capital, a
student friend introduced him to the music of John Lee Hooker.

"I thought he was Malian because of what I heard. It was 100 per cent our
music. The roots are in Africa. There is something there; the trunk of the
tree, but there are lots of branches and, on the branches, are the leaves,
and certain fruits, and it's dispersed. Musically, it's African, but the
words are in American.

"When you take music such as John Lee Hooker does, you're going to find
what we have at home: the greenery, the savannah where you have water. It's
poetic, truly poetic, very poetic. All that was missing was for him to
speak our language to complete the truth."

By the same token, Toure denies that Hooker's music was an "influence" as
such --his own style was pretty much fully-formed by the time he heard the
American-- but he was struck by the resemblance to some of the Tamacheq and
Peul music he had already incorporated in his broader Malian idiom. These
genres derive from the various tribes and ethnic groupings of the Timbuktu
province. (Tamacheq is the language of the Tuareg nomads of northern Mali.
The Peul peoples are from the Mopti area.)

In last night's performance, Toure used an electric guitar until the very
end in contradistinction to the six-string acoustic guitar of his
recordings. The acoustic guitar lends itself to the "blues style" evoked in
the Malian voice, most prominently featured on his recordings. With an
electric guitar, the sound is much more African. In songs that delivered
messages about the need to remain honest, shun material acquisitiveness and
live a simple life, Toure drew out some of the most passionate and lyrical
phrasing from this instrument that I have ever heard in person or
recording. As people used to say about another great African musician, the
pianist Art Tatum who lived in the Diaspora, "God was in the house."

American musicians who heard Ali Farka Toure recordings were anxious to
play with him at the first opportunity. Since his style seemed so similar
to their own, there seemed to be solid grounds for collaboration.

The experience was mixed. Speaking of Taj Mahal, who played with Toure on
"The Source," Toure says, "We had every imaginable problem. He couldn't
even manage to play or keep up. He was very tiring, very tiring. But I
liked him very much. I like that about him a lot, he really wants to learn.
It's not that he understands what I sing. He can't, no."

Toure also recorded with Ry Cooder, who produced both the CD and the movie
featuring Cuban musicians under the title Buena Vista Social Club. The best
you can say about their collaboration "Talking Timbuktu" is that when
Cooder is not playing, it is very great music.

The experience of playing abroad, and with musicians like Mahal and Cooder
in a vain attempt to create a "world music" synthesis, left him
dissatisfied. He never really aspired to be part of this marketing category
to begin with. As a matter of principle, he sings in Malian languages and
refuses to sing in French, the "language of colonialism" foisted on his
people, let alone in English as Senegalese superstar Youssou N'dour has
essayed with disastrous results.

On his latest recording "Niafunke", named after the farming village
community he has poured his fortune and time into, he has returned to his
Malian roots. Niafunke expresses the hopes of most Africans to re-create
the ecology and economy of Africa's fertile past.

Since Niafunke is in proximity to the desert, which is advancing southward
all across sub-Saharan Africa, Toure has tried to irrigate the desert soil
to make it self-sufficient in fresh fruit and vegetables.

The Daily Telegraph reports:

"The project is, as yet, still in the early stages: the fields have been
marked out, and the tractors and bulldozers Ali has bought are hard at
work. While there will eventually be areas dedicated to rice, citrus fruits
and green vegetables, only the mango groves have been fully planted and
cultivated. Ali is intensely proud of his mangoes - '100 per cent organic,
no chemicals!' he beams - and favoured visitors are liable to be presented
with a crate of the delicious fruit to take home with them. These fields,
and their yields, will be donated to the people of the village. Eventually
he intends to build homes there, including one for himself."

The song "Ali's Here" from the album expresses his hopes:

This is a message to my people
that honey does not only taste
good in one mouth. I'm here and
I'm going to share it.
Everything I have gained through
my music goes back to the land
for the people.

(Another Malian guitarist and singer, Afel Bocoum, opened for Toure. He was
absolutely magnificent. He has one CD to his credit--"Alkibar"--that one
must assume is worth adding to one's collection, as are all of Ali Farka

Louis Proyect
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