Touré, Ali "Farka"

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Born: Ali Ibrahim Touré; Gourmararusse, Mali, 1939

Genre: World

Best-selling album since 1990: Talking Timbuktu (1994)

Ali Farka Touré is a virtuoso guitarist and vocalist from the West African nation of Mali who performs a distinctively African-inspired style of blues that has captured an international audience of listeners. Despite having performed for nearly four decades, Touré's prominence in the West has largely been a phenomenon of the 1990s.

Touré was the tenth child born to his mother in the remote Timbuktu region of Mali, and the first to survive. That staying power earned him the nickname "Farka" (the Songhay word for "donkey"), since he was considered stubborn enough to survive. As a child, Touré taught himself to sing and play African folk songs using traditional rural instruments such as the gurkel, a single-stringed instrument made out of a gourd, and the njarka, a single-stringed violinlike instrument made of wood. At the age of seventeen, Touré heard a performance by Guinea National Ballet director and guitarist Ketita Fodeba that changed his life. He was so moved by the expressive qualities and harmonic capabilities of the guitar that he obtained one and taught himself to play it using the same techniques that he had used to play the gurkel and the njarka.

Touré's encounter with American blues via John Lee Hooker in the late 1960s was also a powerful experience, though he was surprised that Hooker was not as at home and familiar with Touré's native music of Mali as Touré was with Hooker's blues world. Touré began playing and singing his own brand of blues that combined African rhythms, pedal points, repetitions, and antiphons with Mississippi Delta bluesstyle improvisations and melancholy. Touré's first albums were released in France in the mid-1970s and were made from tapes he had made and sent off himself. The success of thesefrom which Touré never received a dimeprompted a French tour in which Touré backed up Hooker. In order to have access to studio facilities, Touré trained and then worked as a sound engineer for Radio Mali, allowing him to record and broadcast his own music on the side. When he had saved enough money to buy his own rice and fruit farm on the edge of the Sahara Desert along the Niger River and near his boyhood village of Niafunké, he moved there in 1980 and became a farmer.

Since 1989 Touré has recorded and occasionally even toured in the West, with mixed results. Already in his mid-fifties, he seemed poised for the major career that was so long overdue when his rather commercial collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu (1994), won a Grammy Award and was subsequently supported by a world tour. But Touré found the whole Western notion of music as "entertainment" at odds with his performance style; and being cut off from the land, life, and beauty of the homeland that he realized was truly the source of his music, he became homesick and returned to his farm in Mali. Seemingly oblivious to the money and stardom that had been just within his grasp, Touré was content to play simply to appease his livestock and help nurture the growth of his crops.

It would be five years before Touré would be heard from again, with his album Niafunké (1999). Even that only came about because his London-based manager and record producer Nick Gold was willing to trek a mobile studio along with hundreds of feet of cable and a generator all the way from the Mali capital of Bamako to Niafunké. It is that remote village in northern Mali that continues to inspire and inform Touré's unique musical vision, which successfully seeks to minimize the distance between the Niger and the Mississippi.


Ali Farka Touré (Mango/Island, 1989); African Blues (Shanachie, 1990); The River (Mango/Island, 1990); The Source (Hannibal/Rykodisc, re-release 1993); La Drogue (Sonodisc, 1994); Radio Mali (Nonesuch/Elektra re-release, 1999); Niafunké (Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1999). With Ry Cooder: Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal/Rykodisc, 1994). Soundtracks: Equinox (Varese, 1993); Addicted to Love (TYT, 1997); Besieged (Milan, 1999); Wonders of the African World (Warner Bros., 1999).

dennis polkow