Word to the wise: get on board the Vieux Farka Touré bandwagon now. Not so you can be hip or prepared to drop his name at a cocktail party (for one thing, no one would listen to this music at a cocktail party, and more importantly, who goes to cocktail parties?) or for any reason that would behoove Starbucks to put this disc in their stores. No, the best reason to acquaint yourself with Vieux Farka Touré is because he is a surpassingly brilliant young musician who, if we are fortunate, has a long and productive career ahead of him.
Nobody seems to agree on what “world music” actually means, which is probably not such a bad thing. It might suffice to suggest that “world music” is the sort made outside the States, likely sung in a different language and unlikely to yield traditional hit singles. In other words, music that involves actual instruments played with some degree of proficiency by sentient beings. Anyone with a moderately open mind might find Fondo, the followup to Touré’s eponymous (and astounding) debut, a very welcome antidote for the myriad of overproduced and underwhelming product being pumped out for mass consumption.
It has only taken a few years, and two albums, for Vieux Farka Touré to distance himself from what could (and should) have been an overwhelming impression made by his father, Ali Farka Touré. The elder Touré, who passed on in 2006, was a living legend from Mali whose music delineated the natural but often overlooked link between traditional African music and American blues. His profile was greatly expanded after the release of Talking Timbuktu, his Grammy-winning collaboration with Ry Cooder, in 1994.
Vieux is his father’s son: to some fans the songs on Fondo won’t sound drastically different from the many great albums Ali made over the last two decades. But even a cursory examination reveals both subtle and significant differences. For one thing, Vieux has obviously listened to, and been influenced by, all sorts of music. There are traces of reggae and rock, as well as folk and blues, all of which mesh seamlessly with the more traditional music of his native land. Where Ali’s guitar playing was stark and subtle (yet always dexterous and exceedingly expressive), a vibrant, almost colorful playfulness abounds in Vieux’s work.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid discussing Ali, not only because Vieux looks and sounds so much like his father, but because he studied—and continues to work with—two men so closely associated with Ali’s music, Afel Bocoum and celebrated kora wizard Toumani Diabaté. Both men appear on Fondo, and their presence lends an old-school authenticity to the proceedings. This working arrangement would be almost embarrassingly incestuous if the results were not so consistently outstanding.
Fondo finds Vieux treading the natural bridge his father built between Malian music and Delta blues. Where Ali’s work, particularly his earlier albums, ceaselessly caused the listener to marvel at the common ground between the two continents, Vieux invokes and recalls the connection, but often strains to do more with both sound and tempo. Many of the tunes, like “Sarama” and “Chérie Lé”, have “western” (rock) drums, while the various percussion serve as embellishment and not the foundation for the beat. The three songs with Bocoum (once more) recall Ali, but in each instance the music, not the voices, is at the forefront of the mix. On “Walé”, one of the standouts on an album filled with them, the calabash makes its first prominent appearance, invoking the ancient desert. It is eerily beautiful.
Vieux truly demonstrates his range, as well as his fully formed songwriting talents, on the instrumental tracks. The suitably entitled “Slow Jam” establishes a solid blues that travels from Niafunké to Natchez, and back. The music is so authoritative, so convincing, it’s difficult to believe Vieux is only 28 years old. (Incidentally, the sound throughout is immaculate, and it is further testament to his skills that Vieux co-produced this record with Yossi Fine.)
The other highlights are the two tracks that conclude the album. The last track, a reprise of the opening “Fafa”, is a showcase for Vieux’s guitar. The song is like a whirlpool, spinning in and out of itself, a tranquil and hypnotic drone. “Paradise” reunites the student with his mentor/teacher Toumani Diabaté, and the interplay between Touré’s guitar and Diabaté’s kora is stunning. This is truly trance-like music few, if any, other artists are capable of making.
Fondo is the unequivocal announcement of a major talent, and the well-earned accolades are easy to predict. This constitutes the second consecutive triumph for Vieux Farka Touré: this is not world music so much as music from the world, and certain parts of the world we don’t hear or see as often as we should. Mostly, Fondo is the sound of a son escaping his father’s shadow, even as he shrewdly embraces many of the best elements that made his old man so memorable.
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