- 22 Apr 01
He’s been dubbed the “Bluesman Of Africa” but Ali Farka Touré is Malian and proud of it. Interview: SIOBHÁN LONG.
His grandfather was a sorcerer. His music came courtesy of a visit from the spirits when he was just a whippersnapper of 12. And he’s got the blues running through his veins. Though claimed by everyone from Ry Cooder to the Dublin Guinness Blues Festival, Ali Farka Touré is his own man.
Born in Northern Mali into a family of noble origins, Farka Touré’s held the dubious title of “Bluesman of Africa” for a mighty long time now. He’s been known to pass scathing remarks on the bastardisation of African music in the name of filthy lucre, and spares his wrath for no-one, including Salif Keita, whom, he reckons, has bowed to the pressure of European producers and musicians.
But there was nothing but classic Farka Touré charm to be seen on his recent trip to Dublin for the Guinness Blues Festival when he played to a mixed bunch of punters, some of whom came for the Blues, while other less eh, seasoned giggers brought their dancing shoes and hankered after his funky bass beats. The man is nothing but nonchalant about his dual following of blues freaks and dance fiends.
He becomes decidedly animated when the question of the true genesis of the blues comes up for discussion. I put it to him that there are some who would suggest that West Africa, and not Louisiana or Alabama, is the true home of the blues – not so much Robert Johnson, as the combined forces of the Senegalese, Nigerians and Malians finding their true expression.
“Of course that’s true,” he offers, with enviable certainty, “because we have the roots, the heart and the biography of the music running through our veins. You’ll find the true lineage of the blues in Africa.”
As a native speaker of Soreil, one of many Malian languages, with Bambau his second, and French coming in a miserly third, does he feel that his native tongue(s) have influenced his music, or are the rhythms the dominant force?
“Every ethnic group or tribe in Africa has its own language, its own history and its own biography,” he says. “So the language you speak makes a big difference to the music you play. By simply listening to the language in which a song is sung, you can tell so much about the singer and the world he comes from.”
Dance, a veritable neophyte here, is a much more integral part of the music in Mali.
“In Mali,” he explains, with copious Francophile gestures, “there are 13 different ethnic groups with their own language and own dance. The thing that differentiates dance at home from dance in the West is that in Mali, whenever you see a dance, you can tell what it’s for: whether it’s for a wedding, or a baptism or various ceremonies. Every piece of music has a role and by listening to the language it’s sung in, you can tell so much about where it’s from, what kind of life it portrays and so on.”
Ali Farka Touré’s 1994 Grammy Award winning collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu is probably, for better or worse, the best known of his recordings. There’s no doubting Cooder’s impeccable credentials (as his more recent ventures in Cuba with Rueben Gonzalez and the Buena Vista Social Club testify), but does the sales pitch of Cooder’s “star power” frustrate him at all?
“Ry Cooder’s participation didn’t change the way I made that album,” he insists, “but all the same, I think I prefer the albums which I did without him! I didn’t actually learn anything that would’ve changed my music by working with Ry but then again, he had listened to all my albums beforehand and he’s fully capable, as a musician, to learn how to play it as I wanted it to sound.”
It’s the cult of personality, which we in the West revere, that most puzzles him.
“In the West it seems that it’s the music that matters rather than lineage that goes with it,” he suggests, “whereas in Africa the history of the music has equal importance. There are also other musicians on the album like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and nobody ever asks me about what it was like to work with him! Yet I get enjoyment from getting to know all the musicians I work with, not just the big names!”
Not of Nomadic stock, Farka Touré doesn’t relish touring schedules which take him away from his extended family for prolonged periods. But his attitude is one of resigned acceptance rather than annoyance.
“The way I see it is that God gave me this gift of music,” he says. “I didn’t learn it in the Sorbonne, or any other university. Still, I find the travel very long, very hard. Once I’ve committed to a tour, even if things are going badly at home, I determine to keep my word, and that’s not always easy. There’s a proverb: “honey is not for one mouth only”. Even though I tour and make money, there are a lot of other people to be considered as well, as they are dependent on my earnings and have their own families too. So I have a big responsibility to them and I’m bound to honour it.”
Finally, Farka Touré is anxious to be seen and heard as a Mali musician, not simply as an African one. Such broad brushstrokes are the product of lazy minds unwilling to explore the ethnic diversity of that enormous continent.
“I am Malian and proud to be so,” he declares with a sweeping gesture. “Africa is vast and is too vague a term to describe my music. There are huge differences across Africa and you miss out on all of them if you fail to see us for ourselves. Mali is the belly button of West Africa and we have our own identity, our own music.”