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African Legends

Ali Farka Toure

By Nils Jacobson
Published November 8, 2006

Even though he is no longer with us, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure's legend is cemented. Descended from noble ancestors, Toure’s early interest in music was actively discouraged by his family.

The story of Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure is an odd combination of contradiction and connection. Descended from noble ancestors, Toure’s early interest in music was actively discouraged by his family. A devout Muslim, he chose to study and play the “music of the spirits,” passed down through folklore, myth and ritual. Other than the decade he spent working for Radio Mali in Bamako, he’s firmly ensconced himself in his childhood home of Niafunké in northwestern Mali, where he was elected mayor in 2004. And although he’s Sonrai, he is fluent in several other Malian languages, each associated with a distinct group of people and musical traditions. He sings and plays in those languages as well, communicating common concerns, joys, and experiences with characteristic lean warmth.

But the oddest thing about Ali Farka Toure is how much his pentatonic music resembles the African-American blues of John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Toure is outspoken about the relationship between the styles, stating that, “Their music has been taken from here.” In any case, Toure’s music is far more intimately connected with Malian tradition than anything “new” from across the Atlantic.

After playing the njarka (single-stringed violin), ngoni (four-stringed lute) and Peul bamboo flute in his youth, he witnessed a performance by Keita Fodeba and decided to become a guitarist, translating local idioms onto the instrument. It took several long years before he would own a guitar of his own, which oddly enough happened in the same year (1968) that he discovered African-American music, including the blues but also R&B and funk.

Toure appeared on regular broadcasts from Radio Mali in the ’70s, a time of active fermentation and cross-fertilization in Bamako, and several choice tracks from that period were recently issued as Radio Mali. Starting in 1975, he released a series of albums in France, before recording his self-titled debut on World Circuit in 1987. The 1994 release Talking Timbuktu (recorded in Los Angeles with Ry Cooder) opened millions of new ears worldwide to his musical vision, and the very fine Niafunké brought that audience right back to his hometown roots.


Recommended Recordings:
Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal/World Circuit) (with Ry Cooder)
Radio Mali (World Circuit/Nonesuch)
Niafunké (Hannibal/World Circuit)