Jacob's Ladder: People...You Are The Reason I Am...

Farka Toure

WHENEVER Ali Farka Touré was asked to state his profession, his preferred response was that he was a farmer. He owned and cultivated extensive lands in Mali in the semi-desert region of Niafunké, where in later years he was also the mayor. But he also happened to be arguably the finest guitarist Africa has ever produced.

A virtuoso on both the acoustic and electric instruments, he won a Grammy award in 1994 for Talking Timbuktu, his collaborative album with the American guitarist Ry Cooder, and he has just won another with Toumani Diabaté, for their In the Heart of the Moon. Touré’s intricate, fluid playing was acclaimed by such Western rock guitar legends as Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, who were often seen in the audience at his concerts.

He was in his late forties before he found himself lionised by a Western audience and began performing in some of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Yet even after his international success, he retained not only his African dress but also his ancient tribal beliefs and customs. Whatever his Western managers, agents and record company executives proposed, they knew that he would consult the spirits of his ancestors before he accepted their more earthbound advice.

Born Ali Ibrahim in 1939 in the village of Kanau on the banks of the River Niger in northwest Mali, he never knew his exact date of birth. The tenth son born to parents who claimed noble descent, he was the first to survive infancy and as a child acquired the nickname Farka, meaning donkey and indicating not slow-wittedness but strength and tenacity. When he was still a boy his father died while serving in the French Army and he moved with his mother further south along the river to Niafunké, the village that, apart from a few years spent in the capital, Bamako, in the 1970s, was his home for the rest of his life.

Brought up as a devout Muslim, he had no formal schooling and spent his childhood farming. But in Mali, Islam co-exists with an older belief system that holds that under the waters of the River Niger there is a world of spirits called ghimbala or djinns who control both the spiritual and temporal world.

At a young age he became mesmerised by the music played at spirit ceremonies in the villages along the banks of the Niger. Through the power of music, it is believed that the spirits can possess those present and those who have the gift to communicate with the djinns are called “children of the river”. Influenced by a grandmother who was a famous priestess in the region, Ali was deemed to be such a child and his interest in the music of the spirits led him at the age of 12 to fashion his first instrument, a single-string traditional West African guitar known as a djerkel, which many years later he presented to Ry Cooder.

For a time, he planned to becoming a priest, not in his Islamic faith but in the local djinn-based religion, before he eventually decided the powers of the spirit world were too dangerous to meddle with. “These spirits can be good or bad to you, so I decided just to sing about them,” he explained many years later. “But it’s our culture, so we can’t pass it by.” As a teenager, he worked variously as an apprentice to a tailor, a taxi driver, car mechanic and a pilot on the river, while continuing to play music in spiritual ceremonies and for pleasure, mastering a number of traditional instruments.

At the age of 17 he saw a performance by the touring National Ballet of Guinea, whose orchestra featured a Western guitar. The experience left a lasting impression and he was soon learning to play on a borrowed guitar. When Mali gained independence from its French colonial rulers in 1960, the new Government established professional arts troupes in each of Mali’s administrative regions and two years later Touré joined the Niafunké district troupe, singing and playing guitar in a huge group of musicians and dancers that numbered more than 100. Yet it was not until 1968 that he was able to buy his own guitar, when he travelled to Bulgaria to represent Mali at an international arts festival and purchased a cheap Soviet model.

In 1970 he moved to Bamako, taking a job at the national radio station as an engineer and playing in the Radio Mali orchestra. His guitar playing on the airwaves brought him attention and acclaim across Mali and, encouraged by the response, he sent recordings of the broadcasts to a record company in Paris. It led to the release of his first album and six more followed between 1974 and 1979, each of which was recorded in Mali and the tapes then sent to Paris.

His tradition-based music also began to reflect subtle elements of outside influences, including the American soul of singers such as James Brown and Otis Redding, the jazz of Jimmy Smith and the blues of John Lee Hooker. It wasn’t so much that he imitated any of them, more that he claimed to recognise African roots in all three forms and derived confidence and affirmation of his own art from the fact. In 1980 he returned to Niafunké to work on his land and did not travel again for another seven years. By then the reputation of his 1970s albums and the mid-1980s “world music” boom had made him a cult figure among European audiences and in 1987, British promoter Ann Hunt travelled to Bamako to find him. She eventually tracked him down in Niafunké after Radio Mali broadcast an appeal for him to get in touch with her and his first tour of Britain and Europe followed. It was only the second time in his life that he had left Mali and his guitar mastery and charismatic presence made him an instant success everywhere he played.

That same year the London-based World Circuit label issued his first self-titled recording made outside Africa. The River — a reference to the spirit world beneath the River Niger — followed in 1990 and three years later came The Source, which included guest appearances by the American bluesman Taj Mahal and the British-Asian fusionist, Nitin Sawhney. These records established him as one of the biggest African names on the European and American world music scene, but even better was to come when in 1993, he travelled to Los Angeles to record an album of guitar duets with Ry Cooder. Their collaboration proved to be inspired and on its release the following year the resulting album, Talking Timbuktu, won a Grammy award and established Ali not merely as a great African artist but one of the world’s foremost guitarists in any genre.

Ironically, at almost exactly the same time as Talking Timbuktu was making him an international star, he developed an increasing reluctance to leave his farm. As a result, he did not make another album for five years, when World Circuit owner Nick Gold, who had despaired of ever getting him back into a Western studio, travelled to Niafunké with a mobile recording unit. Sessions, in an abandoned school, were fitted in between the demands of tending his crops and the resulting album Niafunké was released to more rave reviews in 1999.

Four years later, he appeared in Martin Scorsese’s documentary film Feel Like Going Home, which traced the history of the blues from the Mississippi Delta back to the banks of the Niger. Once again, the film director was forced to travel to Mali to find him.

In 2005, he released his first recordings in six years on In the Heart of the Moon, a wonderful album of guitar and kora duets, recorded in Bamako with Toumani Diabaté, widely regarded as the finest player of the West African harp-like instrument. The same year he also played his first European concerts in five years and began work on a new solo album, by which time he had been elected mayor of the Niafunké region as a representative of the URD party (Union for the Republic and Democracy).
He is survived by a wife and eleven children.

Ali Farka Touré, guitarist, was born in 1939. He died on February 7, 2006, aged 66.

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