The grass snake

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This morning was so clear, so blue. The bluebirds began singing long before the sun came up, when Venus was still ablaze over the eastern horizon. I sat watching her inch sideways through the trees, fading into the dawn sky.

I didn’t write anything substantial this morning, but I knew I could’ve – and sometimes just that knowledge, that feeling of the writing spirit close at hand, is sufficient. It was too hard to stay indoors. All the melancholy pictures that I’d taken yesterday afternoon, under a flat, gray sky, had to be taken over again! But before I did that, I’d need some fuel.

Going into the kitchen for breakfast, I felt an odd impulse to listen to a few songs by Ali Farka Toure while I ate. Sure, he’s one of my favorite musicians and singers, but I almost never listen to anything during breakfast – no radio, no music. I don’t want to derail my own train of thoughts. But this morning, I wanted to hear his evocation of the grass snake, “Sega,” on the one-string West African fiddle (njarka). The next song on the Talking Timbuktu CD, the Tuareg blues song Amandrai, also complemented my mood. But it was the conjuring sound of the njarka I had most wanted to hear.

Ali Farka Toure’s music has deep spiritual roots, born of a classic shamanic initiation type of crisis – this despite his Sunni Muslim beliefs. (Islam in Mali tends to be very tolerant and syncretic.) Years ago, when I was reading a translation of a French anthropological text on the Gimbala spirit possession cult of the bend of the Niger, I was surprised to find Ali Farka Toure included as an informant. In some album liner notes I just discovered online, he describes his entry into the world of spirits and music:

I knew the spirit who gave me the gift very well. And I remember that night in Niafunke [Toure’s home village]. A night I’ll never forget. I was about thirteen years old. I was chatting with some friends. I had a monochord [single string guitar] in my hand. I was wandering playing ordinary songs, just like that. It was about 2.00 am. I got to a place where l saw three girls standing like steps of stairs, one higher than the other. I lifted my right foot. The left one wouldn’t move. I stood like that until 4.00 am. Next day l walked to the edge of the fields. I didn’t have my instrument with me. I saw a snake with a strange mark on its head. Only one snake. I still remember the colour. Black and white. No yellow, no other colour, just black and white. And it wrapped itself around my head. I brushed it off, it fell and went into a hole and I fled. Since then l started to have attacks.

I entered a new world. It’s different from when you’re in a normal state; you’re not the same person you know. You don’t feel anything anymore, whether it’s fire, water or if you are beaten. I was sent to the village of Hombori to be cured and I stayed there for a year. When l felt better, I returned home to my family. There I began playing again and I was very well received by the spirits. I have all the spirits. I possess all the spirits and I work with them. I was born among them and grew up among them.

Ali Farka Toure became adept at crossing between worlds, mastering many languages and translating traditional music into modern idioms. He adapted to the international concert scene with great ease. At the same time, however, he remained firmly rooted in his home ground, and considered himself first and foremost a farmer.

He pioneered the adaptation of Sonrhaí¯, Peuhl and Tamascheq styles to the guitar. Even today, few have followed his path. His charismatic person, his fine voice and intricate flowing guitar technique, his good looks and enigmatic character, have all contributed to give him prestige. He remains 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.

What was it that made me decide to listen to Ali Farka Toure this morning, on the very day of his death? Something in the air, perhaps, something in the sky. When my brother Steve emailed the news a few hours later, my other brother, Mark, replied with some amazement that Ali Farka’s name had come up in class the night before – a mere couple of hours after his death. “That sort of thing is always happening to me,” he said. Maybe this was a worldwide phenomenon: fans of the great Malian bluesman suddenly feeling odd compulsions to listen to his music as they breathed in the atoms from his dying breath, like particles of dust from the ever-shrinking Sahel blown high into the jet stream, encircling the globe, adding a faint blush to the dawn sky.

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