Ali Farka Toure, the Malian guitarist/singer/songwriter who cast a spotlight on his musically fertile nation and re-connected the dots between African music and the blues, died in his homeland on March 7th, reportedly of bone cancer. On the day of his death, radio stations in Mali suspended regular play to send Toure’s signature sounds out over the airwaves.
Toure was best-known for his 1994 collaboration with the American guitarist Ry Cooder on Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal/World Circuit), which brought him his first Grammy. The second came just recently, in the Traditional World Music Album category, for the 2005 release In The Heart Of The Moon (World Circuit/Nonesuch), recorded with fellow Malian Toumani Diabaté.
Toure was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau on the banks of the River Niger, near the northern Sahara Desert trading post of Timbuktu, although his exact birth date was unknown. He was the only one of his mother’s 10 children to survive infancy, and after his father’s death he and his mother settled in the farming town of Niafunke—Toure would be elected the town’s mayor in 1994.
Toure first learned to play the gurkel, a single-string African guitar, at an early age, taking up the more traditional guitar at age 17 after seeing a performance by the Guinean guitarist Fodeba Keita. He also learned the njarka, a single-string African fiddle, ngoni (four-stringed lute) and the Peul bamboo flute. He cited many Western musicians as inspirations, including Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, and was often compared to the latter.
It wasn’t until 1968 that Toure acquired his first guitar, and by the ’70s he was appearing regularly on Radio Mali. Some of those recordings were later released on the album Radio Mali (World Circuit/Nonesuch), the acoustic performances steeped in the traditions of Mali but also accenting the artist’s stylistic connection to the rootsy blues that itself came to America via slave ships from Mali and other African lands.
Toure released a series of albums in France before a self-titled set was issued in the U.S. in 1988, just short of his 50th birthday. His greatest boost came with Talking Timbuktu, produced by Cooder in Los Angeles in 1993 and featuring Toure singing in 11 languages and playing acoustic and electric guitar, six-string banjo, njarka, and percussion. The album also featured jazz bassist John Patitucci, session drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Gatemouth Brown, as well as Cooder on guitar.
Toure toured e