Ali Farka Touré - Biography
From rural Mali, this guitarist, singer and songwriter became a true world music superstar in the ‘90s as his musical collaborations reached a wide audience and became embedded in world music consciousness. Born on the banks of the Niger River in 1939 in the remote and ancient region of Tombouctou (Timbuktu), Ali Farka Toure became intrigued by the ceremonial music used to communicate with the ancestral spirits, known as “Ghimbala.” Although the region’s inhabitants claim to be strictly Muslim, Toure was known as one who could communicate with the spirits and learned to play traditional instruments such as the ngoni, a four stringed lute, the njarka, a single stringed violin, the djerkel, a single stringed guitar, and the Peul bamboo flute. Descended from a noble family, Toure worked as a mechanic, a taxi driver and a river ambulance pilot, not entertaining the notion of a career in music until he saw the mesmerizing performance of guitarist Keita Fodeba of the National Ballet of Guinea in 1956. “That’s when I swore I would become a guitarist,” said Toure.
An ethnic Sonrai, Toure learned the other languages of the Niafunké region including Peul, Bambara, Dogon, Songoy, Zarma, and the Touareg language, Tamascheq. With Mali’s independence from France in 1960 came government support for arts & music, and Toure became a member of his district troupe, which included over a hundred performers. Tall and lean, Toure competed in national athletic competitions, but remained focused on music. One of his earliest recordings from 1963 shows the Cuban influence so prevalent in West Africa. As Mali became more engaged with the world at large, Toure had opportunities to travel and bought his first electric guitar in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1968. He also was exposed to American music, feeling an immediate kinship with the blues and, in particular, John Lee Hooker. In the ‘70s he worked as a sound engineer at Radio Mali in the capital of Bamako and recorded seven albums of acoustic, tradition-based music, released in France. Songs from this period are lovingly compiled on the Radio Mali (1996 World Circuit) CD.
Toure returned to farm in his home province of Niafunké while a couple LP’s released in France in the mid-eighties, sporting a smiling image of Toure with guitar, began to attract interest among African guitar aficionados. Toure was invited to London where this writer had the privilege of seeing him perform at a small pub to a select audience. With his funky bush guitar (a battery powered electric guitar with built in speaker-- playable when there is no electricity) he worked his magic, moving sinuously as he played with a look of total command and confidence. He was accompanied on stage by one percussionist who simply sat on large gourd resembling an upside-down bowl and laid down the rhythm with a pair of sticks. Soon thereafter Nick Gold of World Circuit records recorded his first international release plainly titled Ali Farka Toure (1988 World Circuit). A simple, yet effective, recording, it showcased the sheer virtuosity of Toure, whose finger-plucking techniques, speed, and inventiveness rivaled any rock n’ roll guitar demi-God. Music critics and D.J.’s in the U.K. and Europe were quick to embrace Toure, finding in him the African roots of the blues that so many academics and enthusiasts had been searching for. To their disappointment, it emerged in interviews that in addition to being influenced by the deep, ancient music of Mali, he was also a fan of John Lee Hooker.
As he attracted attention from fellow musicians, the next album The River (1990 World Circuit) featured an expanded cast including members of the traditional Irish group The Chieftains and British sax player Steve Williamson. With momentum building and his live reputation growing, he toured extensively in Europe playing prestigious festivals. The Source (1991 World Circuit) came next, featuring Irish legend Rory McLeod, American roots hero Taj Mahal, and from the UK. Asian underground scene, Nitin Sawhney. Perhaps tired of attention and not easily seduced by Euro-fame, Toure returned once again to his rice farm in Mali. Nick Gold convinced him to record again with a certain American guitar hero, Ry Cooder and the result, Talking Timbuktu (1994 World Circuit) remains as a true timeless masterpiece of roots music.
With Ry Cooder, Toure found someone with harmonic and melodic sophistication, superior yet subtle technique (like himself) and a sympathetic soul with whom he could hold an elevated musical dialogue. With bassist John Patitucci and veteran Jim Keltner holding down the rhythm section, and a guest appearance by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, producer Cooder laid the framework for this musical journey. Cooder’s slide-work and reverb toned guitar meshed perfectly with Toure’s profound plucking. The result was simply magical and it captured the imagination of a vast world audience, earning numerous accolades and critical praise. The haunting sounds of the Sahel region of Africa, where the ancient trade routes between the Arabic world and West Africa flowed, are punctuated with the blues of the great African Diaspora. As legend spread, the Grammy winning Talking Timbuktu continued to sell and to this day can be heard as background and segue music on programs such as the syndicated radio program produced by the BBC and PRI, The World.
As his music was featured in soundtracks and television shows, Toure achieved a level of success in the Western world that is rare for a non-English speaking African musician. Famed director Martin Scorsese states in Feel Like Going Home, a documentary film on the roots of the blues, that Toure’s music contained the “DNA of the blues.” Even Rolling Stone magazine had him listed as number 76 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Apparently immune to the seductions of fame and fortune that the European and American lands offered, he chose to spend his time as a gentleman farmer back in his home of Niafunké, Mali. Unsuccessful in getting Toure back into a studio in Europe, Nick Gold of World Circuit Records ultimately had to take the studio to him. A studio was set up in an abandoned agricultural school near his farm so Toure could record at his convenience yet still tend to his rice fields. The resulting recording, Niafunké (1999 World Circuit), captures Ali and small cadre of accompanying musicians in a relaxed atmosphere as they explore a wide range of what some have called “desert blues.”
While immersed in agricultural pursuits such as irrigation projects, World Circuit records remastered and re-released his two LP’s that had been released in France in the ‘80s, commonly referred to as the red and green albums, in a CD package titled Red & Green (2004). That same year he also had the honor of being elected mayor of his hometown of Niafunké. He returned to Europe in 2005 to perform with fellow Malian virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, a master of the ancient 21-stringed Manding harp, or kora. Recorded live in the Malian capital of Bamako at the Hotel Mandé, the first of a trilogy of recordings made there, In the Heart of the Moon (2005 World Circuit) with Toumani Diabaté and Ry Cooder, was released and received critical accolades. The London Times wrote that it “retains the live and impulsive feel of an album of breathtaking instrumental sorcery that combines technical virtuosity with instinctive emotion.” ‘Nuff said!
In the Heart of the Moon won a Grammy, Toure’s second, which made him the first African to win multiple Grammys, and he played a few gigs in Europe with his roots ngoni band, and was recorded live at the Hotel Mandé. That recording would be released as Savane (2006 World Circuit), but not before Ali Farka Toure passed on March 7, 2006. Although he had been suffering from bone cancer for several years, he continued to live and breathe music until the end. The Daily Telegraph in England called Savane “a fantastic album, and a fitting coda to one of most extraordinary musical careers of modern times.” His 66 years of life were honored in Mali by a state funeral attended by the President and numerous luminaries and he was awarded the “Commandeur de l’Orde National du Mali,” the ultimate honor in his homeland. Millions of people whom he touched with his music may not have otherwise known anything about Mali, its culture or music. His “desert blues” made one imagine a long, convoluted journey from Timbuktu to the coast of West Africa and on to the Americas as part of the African Diaspora.
Toure could have prospered without ever leaving his remote village but he chose to engage the world and show us the magic he could conjure with a guitar or a single stringed violin. His musical legacy begins centuries before he was born and he embraced it as a living, growing force, expanding its horizon beyond a logical audience. Having had the fortune to meet a sympathetic producer who worked tirelessly to capture the depth of acoustic experience, Toure’s music remains as a timeless document, pure down to its deep and mysterious roots. Before passing he had begun to record some tracks on his son’s first recording, his last living testament. Although his father never wished for him to follow his footsteps, Vieux Farka Toure felt compelled to do so and, ultimately, his father acquiesced to his desire, blessing him with a final performance on his first release, Vieux Farka Toure (2006 Modiba/World Village). The torch has been passed and tradition lives on.