The rocking heir to Ali
Ali Farka Touré’s death in March 2006 sent a wave of grief through the Mali scene and beyond. As a singer and guitarist, as a farmer, and above all as a human being, the doyen of the desert blues had so richly influenced his cultural sphere that it was feared the Niger would fall into a long period of shock. But Ali himself had provided new blood. In the Sahel and the wider world, Ali’s son, curiously called Vieux, had made a name for himself as a musician even while his father was still alive. While Vieux continues to honor his father’s legacy, he has long since liberated himself from the role of a mere successor. Vieux Farka Touré has helped create a new West African rock sound with international appeal.
If his father had had his way, Vieux would have made a career in the military. Ali Farka, the rice-farming pragmatist who stressed that he was only secondarily a musician, was slow to accept his son’s true passion. In 2001 the 20-year-old Vieux nonetheless began to channel his musical talents more seriously as a student at the Institute National des Arts in Bamako: first as a percussionist, and soon thereafter as a songwriter and guitarist, demonstrating stupendous dexterity on his new instrument of choice. In his case, music is, as he puts it, a “genetic passion.”
No longer wanting to frustrate his son’s plans, Ali himself chose a mentor for Vieux. Ali’s musical partner, Toumani Diabaté, an eminent player of the kora, took the young Vieux under his wing and initiated him into the spectrum of traditional Malian musical styles. In 2006 Vieux released his debut work, assisted by producer Eric Herman, with whom he created the black African rock style “koroboro.” His initially hesitant father even joined the master Diabaté in enhancing several songs on the album, which are thought to be the last tracks that Ali Farka Touré recorded.
On his second work, “Fondo” (Road), from 2009, the junior Touré makes a decisive and impressive break from his father’s path, forging a sound out of startlingly disparate styles. Vieux takes heavy rock and relaxed reggae on board with equal enthusiasm as he splendidly navigates his western Saharan tradition into the blues rock waters traveled by such bands as the Allman Brothers or Cream. At the controls he is accompanied by a musical voyager with a unique outside perspective: Yossi Fine, of Caribbean-Israeli provenance, who has manned the mixing console for the likes of David Bowie and the Moroccan Hassan Hakmoun. Fine provides many of the disc’s production subtleties, including the hypnotic bass lines and a Jamaican undercurrent of dub-style grooves. The rituals of the Sufi brotherhood of the Gnawa reverberate in the music as well.
Yet throughout this sweeping journey, the young Malian’s sound remains firmly rooted in his Sahel homeland. Toumani Diabaté contributes a moving reminiscence of the elder Touré, and Ali’s long-time singing partner Afel Bocoum lends his striking, earthy voice to the record. Vieux Farka Touré’s voice and guitar artistry are increasingly being heard around the globe. He has collaborated with Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley in a tribute to James Brown, as well as with Ry Cooder – as his father once did, on the world-music milestone “Talking Timbuktu.” Although Ali Farka may have left a void that can never be filled, his progeny ensures that on the banks of the Niger no one need fear for the global future of the desert blues.
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