Say, that name looks familiar. Yes, as you surmised, he is related. Vieux Farka Touré, son of the late Ali Farka, carries forth the sound of his father’s brand of Malian desert blues on this remarkably assured debut. On two of the tracks here, Vieux has the help of his father, whose presence lives on in the form of a pair of guest appearances, the last sessions Ali Farka Touré cut before his death. But Vieux’s father wasn’t always so nurturing of his son’s ambitions. The elder Touré‘s musical career was a long, hard battle, with Ali Farka working in obscurity for over a decade before being put on the larger world music stage through a collaboration with Ry Cooder. Even after that, the great singer-guitarist would return to the other lifelong career that had sustained him and his family: rice farming. Understandably, then, he didn’t wish his son to undergo the same hardships.
But, as is evidenced by the surprising sublimity of these recordings, Vieux Farka Touré has always had music in his blood. Although he grew up openly playing percussion, he studied guitar in secret. It was only when he enrolled in the Arts Institute in Bamako, the capital of his homeland, that his father understood just how serious his son was about becoming a professional musician. Soon enough, the word got out that the kid was really good, and producer Eric Herman snatched up Vieux.
The culminationof this story is Vieux Farka Touré, a gorgeous and hypnotic album that actually veers more toward the traditional than much of his father’s recordings. The music here only hints at Afro-pop, mostly due to the presence of bass guitar on the majority of the tracks and, of course, Vieux’s own syncopative electric guitar lines. The rhythms he produces on this instrument are quite reminiscent of his father’s playing, which, in turn, always owed no small debt to American blues legend John Lee Hooker. One generation removed, however, that connection seems less obvious. While the mood of the blues is still present on the junior Touré‘s self-titled CD, this disc in an African album through and through. Along with his supple singing and superbly tasteful guitar playing, Vieux accompanies himself on the calabash, a drum from his childhood days as a percussionist. Also present on these 10 tracks are djembe (a hand drum), njarka (a violin), ngoni (a lute), tama (a “talking drum”), kourignan (a scraper), and, on two songs, Toumani Diabaté and his mellifluous playing of the kora, a harp-lute hybrid.
Even though much of the material on Vieux Farka Touré has a driving pulse, it is mostly a meditative experience, as the musicians draw you into their spell. On only one track does a particularly rock-oriented arrangement break this trance. But the cut, “Courage”, is so good that you won’t mind at all. Herman the producer takes an unusually heavy-handed approach here, co-writing the track and joining in on distorted rhythm guitar, bass, and vocals. With a steady drum set beat, the song could have come from Ali Farka’s final album, 2006’s excellent Savane. Appropriately, the number is a rousing tribute to him and to the welcoming spirit of all Malians. After that little party, the album closes with another tribute, this time to Toumani. “Diabaté” is Vieux giving thanks to one of his mentors, who joins his former collaborator’s son in a masterful and pensive duet for kora and acoustic guitar.
It is the perfect closing to a great album. Even setting aside the contributions from his father and Diabaté, this debut release from Vieux Farka Touré displays a precocious mastery of form. Vieux comes across as a deeply grounded individual who cares about the world around him, whether through his lyrics of hope or from the text on the back of the CD’s digipak pledging 10 percent of the record’s proceeds to a UNICEF-affiliated organization fighting Malaria in Africa. Yes, the spirit of his father lives on in Vieux’s guitar work. Equally compelling, the very good soul of Ali Farka seems to be within his son, as well. Happily, the family name lives on. Vieux Farka Touré is a terrific debut.
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// Notes from the Road
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