Ali in the Family

by Derek Beres

31 January 2007

Vieux Farka Touré continues his late father's musical legacy with a weathered voice, poetic passion, and a new debut album.
Vieux Farka Touré 

Familial duty is a strong factor in numerous countries, though often overlooked in American culture. Children are quick to leave home, go away to school, and “grow up” as it were, which implies separation from one’s parents. While embedded in our cultural psychology, this is a rather new phenomenon. Traditional societies considered the family unit a primary focus; hence, children were often expected to pursue the ancestral line.

In Pakistan, the qawwals are musical ambassadors stretching back over 700 years. The lead figure today is Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew of the famous Nusrat (who had no children of his own). In Africa, griots are the poets of their tribes, a title also dependent upon lineage. On occasion others are allowed in—Senegalese singer Baaba Maal studied with the blind griot Mansour Seck, and continues to perform with him to this day. His family had expected him to undergo the arduous occupation of fishing, and he rebelled, becoming one of his country’s most important musical icons.

While not a griot, such a rebellious spirit also fueled Timbuktu native Ali Farka Touré, a man who would become Mali’s most famous musician. Thanks to his collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, Touré was propelled into international stardom—quite a journey for a man whose nine older siblings died before adolescence. He used money acquired from recordings to fix up a disparate Niafunke, the city he became mayor of in 2004. His life was defined by his soulful guitar, rhythmic calabash, and rough, worn vocals, as he became a voice for African blues (with parallels of give-and-take with Mississippi counterparts).

Touré tutored his nephew Afel Bocoum, and played alongside kora great Toumani Diabaté, winning a 2005 Grammy for the jam-session-turned-album In the Heart of the Moon. In March 2006 he passed on due to bone cancer, and a posthumous Savane was released. Aside from these late recordings, he also contributed songs to the work-in-progress of his son Vieux, which has just been released. Vieux Farka Touré (Modiba/World Village) is an evolution of the inspiring tradition his father left behind.

Given the similarities and abundant talent in Vieux’s work, this story is not without irony. Ali initially forbade Vieux to pursue music as a career, having experienced decades of disillusionment working within the industry. It took the urging of Diabaté, who invited Vieux into his orchestra, for Ali to accept his son’s fate. Without surprise, his offspring had acquired the same stubbornness of father—Ali’s nickname means “donkey”, something he wore like a shroud of honor.

Listening to Vieux’s debut, one wonders how he could have chosen the path of a soldier, as his father had asked. His guitar playing is mercurial and rapid, though with flourishes of softness. Equally proficient in calabash, the percussive sections are tasteful and eloquent. His voice is the hook that draws the ear in; like his father’s, a bit weathered, which adds a natural touch to these 10 excellent songs.

At the foundation is a poetic passion that informs the entire record. His words remind one of Habib Koite, a fellow Malian whose sword is a pen that creates beauty in images. We can sense a spiritual command in each syllable, and the translations admit such. “Ma Hine Cocore”, for one, is a plea for unity:

My brothers and sisters
You must know how to hold onto destiny and how to live together
There are people who have everything and believe this won’t end
The world was so hard that it became easy
The bad things that we say to one another (that’s enough)
The swindling amongst people, that’s enough
The comings and goings of bad people, that’s enough
Injustice, violence, the deception must stop.

Nowhere does his message override musical integrity. Visit his MySpace page and you see the laidback, fierce guitar playing in his home village; watch the video for the reggae-tinged “Ana”, and the community intent of his music shines through. Vieux Farka Touré is an ambitious, diverse album with a lyrical epoxy bridging the gaps. The two songs featuring Ali—“Tabara” and “Diallo”—both make gorgeous use of the electric guitar. To these ears, however, it is Vieux’s work with Diabaté that prove masterful. Both instrumental songs, the weaving of guitar and kora on the winsome “Toure de Niafunke” and heartbreaking “Diabaté” show a determined vulnerability only devoted artisans can mold.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the fickle American audience to Touré‘s work. So much global music depends on the process of trends to “break” into a widespread audience. Vieux has so much going for him, sonically as well as in business. This is the second release by Brooklyn-based Modiba Productions, whose first outing—the compilation ASAP: The Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project, which featured Tony Allen, Keziah Jones, and Antibalas—raised over $130,000 for relief funds in Darfur. Teaming this time with Bée Sago, a UNICEF-affiliated program that donates mosquito nets to the residents of Mali to help fight malaria, 10 percent of all proceeds from Vieux’s work will go to this cause.

This includes not only his debut, but Vieux Remixed, a collection of electronic interpretations by global-minded DJs and producers such as Cheb i Sabbah, Nickodemus, Yossi Fine, Chris Annibell, and DJ Center. Each remix takes Vieux’s predominantly acoustic work and puts it into a club setting, be it Center’s live conga and horns jazz mix, Annibell’s Stevie Wonder funk, or Sabbah’s and Nickodemus’s full-on dance floor crushers. Partnering with the Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons Mixter project, Vieux’s song “Ana” will be available for the entire month of February, to download and create your own interpretation.

As Vieux engages in his first American tour in February, he will be continuing the work of his father: to promote the culture of Africa in all beauty and tragedy. Through his music, his community is nurtured economically and spiritually, as is the intent of indigenous folk music. To tell the story of one’s people is to, in some ways, recite the history of the world. Cultures are built and defined by artists interpreting their tales, and 2007 is the year Vieux’s story is being heard.

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