- Thomas Dorn
- Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate, by Christina Jaspars
- Marianne Greber
- Sunday, February 13, 2011
Congratulations to the Nonesuch artists who were presented with Grammy Awards at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, held Sunday, February 13, in Los Angeles: The Black Keys, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and World Circuit / Nonesuch Records artists Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. Together, these artists' 2010 releases garnered a total of six awards.
- Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Ali and Toumani, the second and last album pairing kora master Toumani Diabaté with the late guitar virtuoso Ali Farka Touré, has made the Metacritic list of the best-reviewed, highest-scoring albums of 2010, coming in at No. 5. "On Metacritic, we consider 'great' albums—those we label as having 'universal acclaim' from critics—to be those with a Metascore of 81 or greater," says the site. Ali and Toumani received an 89.
About Ali Farka Touré
Ali Farka Touré was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau, on the banks of the River Niger, in the northwest of Mali. He was his mother’s tenth son but the first to survive infancy. Touré explains, “I lost nine brothers of the same mother and father. The name I was given was Ali Ibrahim, but it’s a custom in Africa to give a child a strange nickname if you have had other children that have died.” The nickname they chose for Ali was “Farka,” meaning donkey, an animal admired for its strength and tenacity.
When Touré was still an infant, his father died while serving in the French army. The family moved south along the river to Niafunké, the village Touré called home for the rest of his life.
Touré was Niafunké’s most famous citizen. Although internationally known as a musician he regarded himself as a farmer. In Mali, music is largely the monopoly of castes of hereditary musicians, but Touré came from a noble background. There is no tradition of music in his family. He had a calling early in life, becoming, as he said, “drawn to music by its power.”
In Niafunké, the dominant religion is Islam, and Touré was a devout Muslim. But Islam, as it is practiced in the region, co-exists with a much older indigenous belief system that is connected with the mysterious power of the Niger River. Many people believe that under the water there is a world of spirits called Djimbala: male and female djinns with their own characters, history, symbolic colors, and ritual objects. These djinns control both the spiritual and temporal world. Those who have the gift to communicate with the spirits are called “children of the river.”
Touré had no formal schooling. His childhood was occupied by farming and a tailoring apprenticeship. But he was also mesmerized by the music played at Djimbala spirit ceremonies in the villages along the banks of the Niger. He would sit and listen in awe as musicians sang and played the favored instruments of the spirits: djerkel (single string guitar), njarka(single string violin), and ngoni (four-string lute). His family did not regard music as a worthy occupation and so did not encourage his boyhood interest. Touré was, however, a fiercely independent and self-determined youth and at the age of 12 he fashioned his first instrument, a djerkel guitar.
Touré found it very easy and natural to play. Early on, however, he suffered attacks caused by his contact with the spirit world. He was sent away to a neighboring village to be cured, and when he returned a year later he quickly became recognized for his power to communicate with the spirits. Touré was greatly influenced by his grandmother, Kounandi Samba, who was famous in the area as a priestess of the Djimbala. But after her death, he was dissuaded from becoming a priest. “Because of Islam, I don’t want to practice this type of thing too much … These spirits can be good to you or bad, so I just sing about them, but it’s our culture, we can’t pass it by.” Many of his songs are about the spirits, and he always traveled with his njarka violin as well as recordings of spirit music which he listened to whenever possible.
As a teenager Touré found work as a taxi driver, a car mechanic, and a river ambulance pilot. Touré traveled widely in these jobs, continuing to play music in ceremonies and for pleasure. By his early 20s, he could speak seven Malian languages fluently and had mastered the ngoni, the njarka violin, and the Peul bamboo flute. He was also well on his way to absorbing a vast repertoire of music and legend from the various masters he encountered on his travels.
“I got to know music and to love it through so many heroes who passed on and who continue to live on the earth, because history remains. So it gave me the opportunity to get to know the culture of this music, its biography, legends, and history.”
Touré was Sonrai, a people who form the majority of the population of Niafunké. But there are also many other peoples in the region who speak a variety of languages—Peul, Bambara, Dogon, Songoy, Zarma, and Tamascheq, the language of the Touareg. Touré sang in all these languages, but the majority of his repertoire was in Sonrai and Peul.
In 1956, during his travels, Touré saw a performance by the National Ballet of Guinea featuring the great Malinke guitarist Keita Fodeba. “That’s when I swore I would become a guitarist,” he said. “I didn’t know his guitar but I liked it a lot. I felt I had as much music as him and that I could translate it.” Touré began to play borrowed guitars and found it easy to translate his traditional guitar technique to the Western instrument. He said that his only problem was in keeping all six strings happy by touching them as he was used to only playing the monochord. At about the same time, he added percussion, drums—he made his own kit complete with cymbals and bass drum—and accordion to his musical skills.
When Mali gained independence from the French in 1960, the new government under President Modibo Keita initiated a policy to promote the arts. Cultural troupes were formed to represent each of Mali’s six administrative regions. From 1962, Touré worked with the Niafunké district troupe. He composed, sang, played guitar, and rehearsed singers and dancers in a 117-person troupe. The troupe was successful in the biannual competitions held in Mopti throughout the 1960s. Touré also won numerous athletic prizes. “I did this so my village wouldn’t win zero. I’m very patriotic!” In the '60s he also accompanied various singers, and he had his own small group, a 1963 recording of which includes a song sung in Sonrai to a Cuban salsa rhythm.
In 1968, the year Modibo Keita was ousted in a coup by Moussa Traore, Touré made his first trip outside Africa when he was selected (along with the revered musicians Kelitigui Diabaté and Djelimadi Tounkara) to represent Mali at an international festival of the arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. They performed arrangements of traditional music with Touré on guitar, flute, djerkel, and njarka. It was in Sofia that he bought his first guitar.
That same year a student friend in Bamako played him records by James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Smith, and Albert King. Touré remained a great fan of all these throughout his life, partly, he said, because he heard so much of his own traditions in them. Of all this music, the one that struck him as most similar to his own was the blues, especially as performed by John Lee Hooker. He was immediately struck by the thought that “this music has been taken from here” and was surprised to hear singing in English.
In 1970, Touré’s work took him from Niafunké to Mopti and, later in the year, to the capital Bamako. Here he began a decade working for National Radio Mali as a sound engineer. He also played as part of Radio Mali’s orchestra, until it was disbanded in 1973. Throughout the 1970s he brought his unique guitar style to the attention of the country via many radio broadcasts. On the advice of a journalist friend he sent a number of recordings of these broadcasts to the Son Afric record company in Paris.
In a matter of months, the first Ali Farka Touré album (among the very first commercial records of Malian music), featuring Touré on guitar and vocals and Nassourou Sarre on ngoni, was released. He continued to record in Bamako and send the tapes to Paris, releasing seven albums in all. Selections from these albums can be found on the Radio Mali CD.
Throughout the 1970s, Touré established a reputation in Mali as a unique solo artist. He pioneered the adaptation of Sonrai, Peul, and Tamascheq styles to the guitar. He remained uncompromisingly wedded to his traditional music, refusing to “go commercial.” His songs celebrate love, friendship, peace, the land, the spirits, the river, and Mali—all in dense metaphors.
In 1986, one of his Radio Mali–era albums, which was re-issued on World Circuit / Nonesuch as part of Red and Green in 2004, started to generate interest amongst radio DJs in London, including Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett. It also came to the attention of Folk Roots magazine; with no information on the record sleeve the journal puzzled over this African musician who played the blues in such a distinct way.
Anne Hunt from World Circuit traveled to Bamako to seek out this mysterious individual. With the help of Toumani Diabaté, Radio Mali broadcast a request for Touré to contact Anne. He had moved back to Niafunké four years earlier, but, at the time of the broadcast, happened to be visiting the capital. Touré was invited to perform in the UK, and in 1987, for the first time since the Sofia Festival in 1968, he played concerts outside Africa. He played an acclaimed series of shows and, in the same year, World Circuit released his first recording outside Africa, to great acclaim.
After that, he went on extensive tours of Europe, the US, Canada, Brazil, and Japan and recorded a five additional albums for World Circuit, including The River, The Source, and the Grammy Award–winning collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu.
Despite his international success, Touré became increasingly reluctant to leave his farm in Niafunké. World Circuit’s Nick Gold decided that the only way the make another record with him was to bring the studio to Niafunké. He set up a studio in an abandoned agricultural school, and fit in the recording when Touré wasn’t tending the land; the crops always came first. The resulting album, Niafunké, was released in 1999.
After Niafunké, Touré returned to what he saw as his main role in life: looking after his farm and being with his family. He was involved with ongoing irrigation projects to better the agricultural situation in the Niafunké region. In 2004, he was elected Mayor of Niafunké. He retired from music, saying he felt he needed to be inspired, or to have an issue that needed to be addressed, to record again.
In 2003, he participated in the documentary Feel Like Going Home. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the film traces the history of the blues from the banks of the Niger to the Mississippi Delta. In so doing, the film brought Touré to an even wider audience. He had also been researching his local music and culture with the aim of preserving it for future generations, and this activity had inspired him to play and record again. After turning down endless offers to perform, Touré accepted an invitation to play at the tiny Privas festival in France in 2004. He began 2005 with his first major concert in Europe in five years when he played at the BOZAR in Brussels. The performance, which featured a guest appearance from Toumani Diabaté, was greeted with frenzied excitement from fans and press.
In 2005, the first of a trilogy of albums recorded at Bamako’s Hotel Mandé was released by World Circuit / Nonesuch Records: In the Heart of the Moon, a duet album with Toumani Diabaté that won a Grammy, making Touré the only African to have received two such prestigious honors. Shortly following the album’s release, he played a series of European concerts with his unique, down-home ngoni band. Touré’s ngoni band is featured on Savane, his final album and the third in the Hotel Mandé series. Just a few weeks after winning his second Grammy and approving the album’s final master, Ali Farka Touré succumbed to the bone cancer with which he had suffered from for the preceding two years. He died on March 7, 2006.
In Mali, Touré was awarded a posthumous medal of honor and given a state funeral attended by the president, government ministers, Mali’s leading musicians, and thousands of others. The worldwide media coverage of his death was unprecedented for an African musician and messages poured in from fans around the world.
Ali Farka Touré was a true original and an exceptional musician. He transposed the traditional music of his native north Mali and singlehandedly brought the style known as desert blues to an international audience. He was a giant of music and will be missed by fans throughout the world.
February 23, 2010
The second and last album pairing guitar virtuoso Ali Farka Touré and kora master Toumani Diabaté, Ali and Toumani won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional World Music Album. Recorded in 2005, with contributions from Cachaíto López on bass, the album is the successor to the Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon and is the last recorded by both Touré and López. Pitchfork says it's "uncommonly beautiful." NPR calls it "breathtaking."