I was in Ghent last week when I heard that Ali Farka Toure had died. I was calm and sad. I went into the living room and told my hosts that a great man had left life behind. Though they were fans of world music, they had not heard of him. But perhaps they saw in my eyes something of his spirit, because when I came down to breakfast the next morning, no one was in the room but Ali Farka Toure was singing. My hosts had gone out and bought Talking Timbuktu that very morning. It was a rainy day in Flanders, but in Northern Mali, and all across the Sahel as far as Abuja, a great dust storm was whipping around the funeral cortege of the late mayor as it moved towards Niafunke.
I first started listening to Ali twelve years ago, when Talking Timbuktu was released. Two years earlier, a friend of mine had driven me to a record shop and, in great excitement, had bought me a new disc. That CD was called Meeting by the River, and it featured Ry Cooder on a modified slide guitar and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on a modified vina. As I listened to those musical dialogues, I was awed by the depth of the relationship between the two master musicians. So, looking for lightning to strike twice, I bought Ry Cooder’s next album when it came out.
It was an amazing audio document. There was no surprise at all when it went on to win a Grammy that year. And it caught the crest of something called “world music,” introducing many people to the musical riches of far-off places like Mali. For me, it was the sound of the spirit: Talking Timbuktu made me homesick for Africa, though the music it contained had nothing directly to do with the part of Africa I came from. In fact, a Nigerian friend used to tease me – “You’re listening to that Hausa music again!” What he meant was that the music evoked the agrarian, Sahelian world that both Northern Nigeria and Northern Mali had in common, the world of syncretic Islam and the cultures of the Mande, the Fulani, the Peul, the Hausa. It had, in other words, nothing at all to do with me, a Southerner, a Christian, a Yoruba.
And yet, playing “Soukoraï¿½? (track two) over and over again, I found in it something that had everything to do with me. I didn’t know what the words meant – still don’t – but I knew there was something in the music that was deeply relational. I was hooked. A sizable proportion of my income began to go toward music from all over the world. Much of that music was from Africa, especially Mali: Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, Afel Bocoum, Kandia Kouyate, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and, of course, the great Djemilady Tounkara. It was the league of heroes. A private passion was born.
When, a few years later, the opening bars of “Diarabyï¿½? (track ten) became a signature riff on the public radio show The World, I was pleased and irritated at the same time. This was my album being broadcast to millions daily, without due attribution or respect, used as the theme for a geography quiz – and not a particularly difficult one, either. How dare they cannibalize a masterpiece for such a humdrum purpose? I had all the intolerance of a fresh convert, but in truth I secretly grew to love this modest representation of my world in the wider world. Ali’s music was everywhere. Maybe even in the White House, it had climbed in through the windows and shot the President precisely where he most needed it.
I was living in London at the end of the last century and that was when Ali Farka Toure released Niafunke, named after his home village. I bought it right away, along with Afel Bocoum’s Alkibar, which had been recorded at the same time, in the same village, by the same crew. Both were gorgeously produced, released on the Nick Gold and Jerry Boys label World Circuit.
I loved Niafunke, but wondered – could anything really compare with Talking Timbuktu? Was there any sound on God’s earth that could measure up to the final bars of “Gomni,” when Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure restate the song’s theme in an almost unparalleled harmonic union of guitar lines that makes the hairs stand up every single time? Could the pained longing expressed in “Ai Duï¿½? have an equal on any other album?
I had my answer soon enough, when Ali Farka Toure came to play at the Barbican. Ticket prices were steep, by my impoverished student standards: â‚¤20 per person, and it was double for me because I had invited a friend along. But what a night! Before the concert, Habib Koite had been playing in the lobby, which was apt preparation. The hall was packed. Ali Farka Toure, dark and authoritative, cracked jokes from the stage and put us at our ease before the concert started. And then, the wall of sound: Hamma Sankare was a monster on the calabash, that humblest of percussion instruments; Afel Bocoum, appearing with his mentor of thirty years, was in fine voice; and the master himself, from whose guitar glistening chords unfurled on song after beautiful song. Occasionally, he would take the stage alone with his njarka and do what can only be described as calling out to the spirits. And they came, filled the Barbican to the rafters. The Londoners were awed, shaken. This was “early music” in the best sense of the word, sounds that took us back to something we might once have known.
Soon after, I finally penetrated the mystery of Niafunke. It had become clear to me that the somewhat glossy perfection of Talking Timbuktu had been jettisoned here in favor of a rawer energy. The grooves were similar, but the guitar crackled with electricity. The ambience of the recording was noticeably warmer: it was recorded in an abandoned schoolroom in Mali, not a high-tech Los Angeles studio. In fact, if there’s any flaw with Talking Timbuktu, it’s this relative lack of ambience. But to speak of Talking Timbuktu and Niafunke in this way – not to mention The Source and In the Heart of the Moon – seems almost sinful. These albums all deserve six stars out of five. Soul runs through them all. I just don’t get those “world music” snobs who dismiss albums like Talking Timbuktu because a white guy plays on it, or because it’s not tinny and scratchy like the recordings from the seventies for Radio Mali. Who cares who plays on it? As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
In those days, I played Niafunke everyday, along with my other favorite at the time, the album of kora duets by Ballake Sissoko and Toumani Diabate called New Ancient Strings. Once, I was sitting in the university library listening to Niafunke through my oversized headphones, when a young European woman I had been trying to attract came over and sat with me. What a wonderful opportunity, I thought.
I placed the headphones over her ears and cued up track four, “Saukare.ï¿½? Ali Farka Toure learned this song in 1946, at a wedding, and it has a deep, alien sound, nothing like one might hear growing up in, say, Trondheim. In retrospect, this was most certainly not the song to draw a first-time listener to the man’s music: it’s just Ali singing, accompanied by the njarka, a single drum, and a chorus of two other voices as unsweetened as his. In any case, I explained to this Norwegian with her bright blue eyes that the song was about an ardent groom, that he was promising to bring his bride the finest bull in the herd as proof of his love. I suppose I thought this was just the thing to make her fall madly in love with me, but it didn’t seem to have the intended effect. She listened to the song politely, completely mystified. After that, we would exchange awkward hellos whenever we encountered each other in the hallways of the school.
Since then I’ve learned to temper my enthusiasm, at least in public. In private, different rules apply: “Roucky” from the 1993 release The Source still makes me feel like I’m in the best church possible; “Sambou Ya Ya” from the new release In the Heart of the Moon still speaks deathlessness into my skeptical spirit; “Gomni” – the version on Talking Timbuktu – still makes me cry. They are the work of a man who, in his generosity, in his fierce superstitions, was utterly unlike me. And yet, if I am not in such music, I am nowhere at all.
The day Ali Farka Toure died, and a day before I found out about it, I happened to hear his music. It was a Belgian television show about AIDS in Kenya, following the story of a woman who, after living in the Netherlands for a long time, went back home to help educate her fellow Kenyans about the disease. “Why Ali Farka Toure?” I asked my wife, greatly annoyed. “It makes no sense, using West African music to illuminate an East African film! They’re always trying to pull this crap, thinking no one would notice.” My wife, a genius at handling my overreactions, said nothing.
I kept watching the film, which used fragments of different songs from Niafunke: here a bus journey in the dusk, there a scene from a mountain looking out over the slums outside Nairobi. Eventually, I had to admit that it was a perfect fit. The music went along with the images, because both were about what all good art is about: being there, being present to what is, serving mystery and the visible. I like to think that the sound of “ASCO” entered my ears that evening at the very moment that Ali Farka Toure’s spirit was leaving his body, a thousand miles away.
The great Sahelian dust storm has settled for now. Ali Farka Toure, monsieur le maire de Niafunke, is gone. But his way of being in the world will continue to speak life to many, and this surely is one way of not dying.
ALI FARKA TOURE: a recommended playlist
(all available on iTunes)
1. Roucky (The Source)
2. Gomni (Talking Timbuktu)
3. ASCO (Niafunke)
4. Saukare (Niafunke)
5. Sambou Ya Ya (In the Heart of the Moon)
6. Cinquante Six (The Source)
7. Soukora (Talking Timbuktu)
8. Diaraby (Talking Timbuktu)
9. Howadolo (In the Heart of the Moon)
Also, don’t miss the tribute by Lucy Duran and Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio 3.
Used by permission. All rights reserved by the author.
See also The grass snake.
—Abdul-Walid of Acerbia