[8 October 2009]
Samba Touré‘s first release is an engaging journey through rich Malian musical traditions. Each track is a feast for the ears, with a blend of acoustic and electric guitar, sokou (traditional Malian violin), bass guitar, drums, gnoni (four-string guitar), flutes, and tamani (talking drum). Often referred to as “desert blues”, the sounds heard on Songhai Blues: Homage to Ali Farka Touré are the direct ancestors of North American blues.
Ali Farka Touré—one the finest guitarists of all time, and a musical/cultural ambassador of Africa—gave Samba an opportunity to join his band for a 1997 tour, a move that solidified the younger guitarist’s passion to continue the musical mission started by his mentor. Known by many as the “African John Lee Hooker”, Ali Farka Touré‘s distinctive technique, rhythmic approach, and ethereal vocals were indeed a match—or a mirror, perhaps—to the now-legendary sounds of the Mississippi bluesman. Having not gained his true recognition until after his passing, Farka Touré‘s outstanding musical legacy is further cemented through Samba Touré‘s tribute, cycling through a variety of themes and messages found not only in Malian music, but in all of African musical traditions.
While paying tribute to Farka Touré in this disc, Samba Touré‘s opening guitar line on “Kairi Kairi” not only recalls the fluid single-note lines of his mentor, it also recalls one of the same themes popular in American blues music: warnings to other men about the perils of women, their deceitful ways, and the dangers of seduction. The seriousness of the message can easily be heard in Touré‘s vocals, particularly in the call-and-response with his backing musicians. At points, it has the feel of a fired-up preacher, fervently delivering a sermon to his congregation, and the people are giving it right back. Halfway through the track, the tempo changes and takes on a more frenetic pace, amplifying the urgency of the message.
“Djanjo”, on the other hand, is sung from another perspective about women found in the blues, praising their beauty and charm—but also lamenting the challenges of winning their hearts. It’s a much more exotic take on the “I love my baby, but she don’t love me” sentiment found in so many blues standards. The backing musicians’ soulful repeating of the title line, sung in a simple harmony, provides a nice counterpoint to the sparring between the guitar and the sokou. Musically and thematically, the cooler surface of this track is a brilliant juxtaposition to the fearful message of “Kairi Kairi”.
“Goye Kurya” carries another current found throughout the history of African music: the virtues of hard work. Like the themes found in field hollers and work songs—direct descendants of African musical traditions—the idea that there is no reward without effort propels this track forward with a pounding drum beat and ecstatic vocals from both the leader as well as lines sung as a group chant.
“Anbafo” features exhilarating work on the sokou and, again, a group chant of the title line throughout the track, reiterating the song’s message of celebrating diversity in addition to preserving and celebrating traditions. The hypnotic, repeating guitar figure in “Foda Diakaina”, which dances around the playful lines from the flute, is a fascinating musical conversation, providing a perfect aural representation of the song’s themes of the importance of listening within a family, and its ability to create stronger bonds.
“Bila”, which speaks to the same themes, picks up with a string-snapping guitar line and a reggae feel, complete with a pumping bass line and pulsating drums. “Ali Farka”, a six-minute piece written in memory of Samba Touré‘s teacher, friend, and musical companion, is equally mournful as it is celebratory, properly closing out the disc. The rhythms on Songhai Blues are intense and often difficult to follow—much like those of John Lee Hooker—but many of them are danceable. Much of the disc has a festive, triumphant quality, with a prayerful and spiritual undercurrent. The electric bass is the secret weapon here, its deep pulse weaving in and out of the tunes, giving them a danceable quality, making Graceland-era Paul Simon fans’ mouths water.
Touré‘s skillful guitar work on many of the tracks doesn’t cut through the mix—one has to concentrate in several areas to hear it. Rather, it blends with the instruments—perhaps yet another reflection of the disc’s recurring themes: the merits of working together, the bonds of family, community, and communication. This is music with a message, and that’s something worth talking about.