[20 June 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Mon Pays translates to My Country, and Vieux Farka Touré knows the difference between patriotism and loving one’s country. One means that you think your country is the best because you were born there, the other means that you’re truly happy with the accomplishments of your homeland. It’s an appreciation that skirts pride and nationalism and focuses on the positive things that will be left for future generations. No hubris, no piety, no fanaticism. Fanaticism is what has the Malian guitarist bothered lately. As a Muslim, Vieux Farka Touré feels a strong urge as of late to defend his faith from its militant extremist reputation. A coup d’état has uprooted and scattered many of his friends and family from their homes while this aggressive faction of Islam seems to do whatever it wants to do in northern Mali. And just to harden everyone’s existence a little bit more, these Islamic extremists feel it necessary to silence the music around them. As the Malian musical community feels the threats and pressures of the militants, Vieux Farka Touré cries out in the only way he knows how: in song. Like any peace-loving citizen of the world, he loves his country too much to watch it die. Mon Pays is an album that asks his audience to think back on Mali, concentrate on what made it so great, and build it back up again.
For the sake of discussion, I’ll go ahead and say it; last time we heard from Vieux Farka Touré, he was flirting. The Secret from 2011, for all its critical acclaim, was a good old-fashioned crossover attempt. If there’s any other explanation for his collaborations with Dave Matthews, Derek Trucks, John Scofield and Eric Krasno, it might be out of friendship. Still, Farka Touré was placing his chips on many a different square with The Secret. Whether or not it worked artistically is not a relevant point here because he’s raked in all of those chips and placed them on the sounds of his home country. Mon Pays is more than just a sentiment or a name, it’s a thread that weaves through all 10 songs. One is named “Peace”, another is named “Future”. And he even covers his dear old dad with “Safare”.
It’s tempting to call Vieux Farka Touré the Julian Lennon of the African guitar, but he’s handled the whole affair much better than that. The larger-than-life legend Ali Farka Touré died of bone cancer in 2006, a little more than 10 years after American guitarist/producer Ry Cooder introduced him to worldwide acclaim with the Grammy-winning collaboration Talking Timbuktu. In 2007, son Vieux Farka Touré made his debut album to an approving audience. From there, he has been going full steam ahead. On the one hand, I could say that he’s managed to crawl out from under the shadow of his father. On the other hand, was he ever there in the first place? Because “flirting” aside, Vieux Farka Touré‘s career hasn’t shown the slightest hint of floundering yet.
Farka Touré, as always, is surrounded by talent. Twelve other musicians contribute to the cyclical grooves to which certain tribes thought of as ellipses – voids you need to fill with everything you’ve got. If Vieux Farka Touré‘s guitar helps the songs take flight, Sidiki Diabate’s kora and the feverish percussion section keep them in the air. The deserts of West Africa are evoked again and again. Not out of dryness, but out of the never-ending view of land and sky – one that graces the back of Mon Pays and serves as a perfect visual for the closer “Ay Bakoy”, a song that came about through Farka Touré‘s ongoing partnership with pianist Idan Raichel.
Another striking moment on Mon Pays, one guaranteed to lower your guard, is “Kele Magni”. The tonic chord walks down to its relative minor then slides back up again. The sound is full yet low-key as Vieux Farka Touré lyrics, according to the press release, “declare[s] that his nation belongs to every citizen.” Why do things continually come to this? To hear the man’s guitar work on “Kele Magni” is to wish that there was no such thing as nationality.