Born: 1939 | Died: March 7, 2006 Primary Instrument: Guitar
A unique tale of a world respected musician, who deep in his heart considered himself but a humble farmer.
Ali Farka Touré was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau on the banks of the River Niger in the north west of Mali. He was his mothers’ tenth son but the first to survive infancy. When Ali was still an infant his father died while serving in the French army, and the family moved south along the river to Niafunké, the village Ali called home for the rest of his life. People make their living by farming, cattle herding and fishing. There is no tradition of music in his family, but he had a calling early on in life, becoming drawn to music by its power. He was a child of the river.
In Niafunké, as in the most of Mali, the dominant religion is Islam and Ali was a devout Muslim. But in this part of the world Islam co-exists with an indigenous belief in the mysterious power of the Niger. It is believed that under the water there are spirits called Ghimbala, male and female djinns with their own character, history, symbolic colors and ritual objects, all vividly portrayed in the local mythology. 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. He was mesmerized by the music played at Ghimbala 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, at the age of twelve he fashioned his first instrument, a djerkel guitar.
Ali found it very easy and natural to learn 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. 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.
He 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.
From 1962 Ali worked with the Niafunké district troupe. He composed, sang, played guitar in a troupe numbering a hundred and seventeen people. He also accompanied various singers and he had his own small group, a recording of which from 1963 includes a song sung in Sonrai to a Cuban salsa rhythm.
In 1968 Ali made his first trip outside Africa when he was selected to represent Mali at an international festival of the arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. They performed arrangements of traditional music with Ali on guitar, flute, djerkel and njarka. It was in Sofia that he bought his first guitar. Also in 1968 a student friend played him records by James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Smith and Albert King. Ali remained a great fan of all these, partly he said because he heard so much of his own traditions in them, the one which struck him as most similar to his own was the blues of John Lee Hooker..
In 1970 began a decade working for National Radio Mali as a sound engineer. He also played in the Radio Mali 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 featuring Ali on guitar and vocals and Nassourou Sarre on ngoni was released. He continued to record and send the tapes to Paris and a total of seven albums were released. Selections from these albums have been released as “Radio Mali.”
Throughout the 1970s Ali established a formidable reputation in Mali as a unique solo artist. He pioneered and perfected 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 expressed in dense metaphors.
In 1986 one of his “Radio Mali” albums started to generate great interest in London. An invitation was made for Ali to perform in the U.K. and in 1987 for the first time since the Sofia Festival in 1968; Touré played his first concerts outside Africa. In the same year his first recording outside Africa was an instant success for the World Circuit label. He went on to record a further five albums for the label, including “The River,” (1990) “The Source,”( 1991) and the Grammy Award winning “Talking Timbuktu,” a 1993 collaboration with Ry Cooder which served to confirm Ali’s status as an artist of international repute. His 1996 album “Radio Mali,” (World Circuit) is a compilation of his earlier recordings. He also did one for Shenachie in ’90 called “African Blues.”
Despite his international success, Ali became increasingly reluctant to leave his farm in Niafunké. World Circuits producer Nick Gold decided that the only way the make another record with him was to bring the studio to Niafunké. The studio was set up in an abandoned agricultural school, and the recording had to be fitted in between tending the land, with the crops always coming first. The resulting album “Niafunké” (Hannibal) was released in 1999.
After that, Ali returned to what he saw as his main role in life, looking after his farm and being with his family. He became actively involved with ongoing irrigation projects to better the agricultural situation in the Niafunké region and this culminated in his election in 2004 as Mayor of Niafunké.
Although choosing to retire from music as his full time career, and rarely playing live, Ali stated that should he feel suitably inspired, or have an issue that needs to be addressed he would 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, and would bring Ali to an even wider audience. In 2004 Ali accepted an invitation to play at the tiny Privas festival in France, then began 2005 with his first major concert in Europe in five years, in Brussels, with a guest appearance from Toumani Diabaté, This coincided with the release of “Red and Green,” (Nonesuch) which is actually a reissue of two previous albums from ’84 and ’88.
In 2005 the first of a trilogy of albums recorded at the Hotel Mandé in Bamakó, Mali was released. “In the Heart of the Moon” (Nonesuch) a duet album with Toumani Diabaté, won a Grammy award making Ali the only African to have received two such prestigious honors. Shortly following the albums release Ali played a series of brilliant European concerts with his unique down-home ngoni band featured on his new album, “Savane” the third in the Hotel Mandé series.
Sadly, Ali would not see the release of “Savane.”(Nonesuch) Just a few weeks after winning his second Grammy and approving the albums final master, Ali succumbed to the bone cancer with which he had suffered from for the preceding two years. He died on March 7th 2006.
In Mali, Ali was accorded a posthumous Commandeur de lOrdre National du Mali (the country's highest honor) and given a state funeral, befitting a musician who considered himself first and foremost a farmer.
Ali Farka Touré was a true original. An exceptional musician, he transposed the traditional music of his native north Mali and single-handedly brought the style known as desert blues to an international audience. He was a giant of African music and will be missed by fans throughout the world.
Original text by Lucy Duran (updated by Nick Gold, Dave McGuire & James Nadal)
Ali Farka Toure
Red and Green
In the Heart of the Moon
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