There are usually two distinctive types of posthumous releases in music. The first and more frequent is the one that makes you cringe, often involving the rapacious pillaging of the vaults, foisting unfinished or unworthy product on a (mostly) unsuspecting public. Of course the unearthing of an occasional gem (sometimes) compensates for the smattering of detritus an artist never intended to allow into the world, and for good reason. The second instance involves authentic work that was either close to completion, or polished material that for whatever reason never saw the light of day (there are countless examples of this phenomenon in jazz).
The unexpected but most welcome release of Ali and Toumani is, to be quite certain, an example of the latter scenario. Although Ali Farka Touré was taken entirely too soon (despite having lived a long and productive life, artistically and spiritually) in 2006 after battling cancer, the two albums that appeared in rapid succession just before and shortly after his death lessened the blow. The fact that his last proper album, the typically excellent Savane, was heard by the world after he had left it did not cause many fans (at least not this one) much room or reason to hope there was any unfinished business. As it happens, based in part on the rapturous reception his first collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, 2005’s Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon, the two men were eager to work on a second recording. Ali and Toumani is the delightful result of this second, and unfortunately final, meeting of the minds.
For anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of discovering either of these indispensable artists, this release is an ideal point of entry. The fact that we got any music from Ali Farka Touré after 1999 was a significant blessing. Touré, who was proficient in the ‘90s, made the abrupt but admirable decision to stop playing music and focus on his duties as mayor of Niafunké. Indeed, it was In the Heart of the Moon that prompted Ali’s return to the scene, as the two men already had a special bond based on mutual respect and admiration. Both are considered masters of their respective idioms: elder statesman Ali plays guitar-based “desert blues” and the much younger Diabaté is heralded as the supreme kora player on the planet (the kora is a 21-string African harp that looks and plays like an oversized lute).
In the liner notes to In the Heart of the Moon Diabaté calls Touré “the lion of the desert”. Famously, there were no rehearsals prior to the recording, at Touré’s insistence. Touré understood both men would draw upon their considerable knowledge of each other’s work, and the improvised results were equal parts confidence and comradery, drawing upon traditional songs as points of departure. A similar strategy was employed for the Ali and Toumani sessions, and the results are equally stunning.
Knowing that Touré was close to the end of his battle with cancer certainly adds import to this occasion. As Diabaté says in the liner notes, “Ali was ill. There were moments, when playing a song, that we were forced to stop, because Ali was in so much pain.” Despite Diabaté’s protestations, Ali would insist on continuing. Not for nothing did the great man earn the nickname “Farka” (donkey) as a tribute to his legendary stubbornness. That strength and focus is evident in these recordings, as it is in practically everything Touré did — musically and otherwise.
It would seem perfectly straightforward, then, to discuss music with (almost) no vocals that consists (mostly) of acoustic guitar and kora. But in part because these two geniuses are capable of sounding like a miniature orchestra, and in part because the sounds they make are so rich and teeming with emotion, it is actually rather difficult to do this work justice. So let’s just say it is a complete triumph and anyone with even a passing acquaintance with either musician can count on guaranteed satisfaction.
The opening track, “Ruby”, was an untitled composition Touré brought to the studio, which he subsequently named in honor of Diabaté’s five-year-old daughter, who was present throughout the recordings. As is the case with most of the songs, Ali plays the tune while Diabaté embellishes, managing to sound like he is commenting as well as anticipating the next note from the guitar. It has a consistently hypnotic effect: the guitar is a waterfall and the kora is the whirlpool it continuously drops into.
There are no dull or mediocre moments, but a few songs immediately stand out. The third track, “Be Mankan”, is a tranquil waltz that features a subtle but striking kora performance. As Touré establishes the melody and reiterates it, Diabaté echoes every move, like a mono recording spliced with a stereo overdub. “Samba Geladio” is another irresistible groove that is quite reminiscent of “ASCO” (from 1999’s Niafunké). Indeed, it is very like an acoustic version of that jam. “Sina Mory” is one of the few tracks with singing, and it was inspired by the suggestion that Touré recall the first song that inspired him to play guitar. Needless to say there is a full-circle element to these moving circumstances, with memory living — and kept alive — through music.
This is a deep, darkly beautiful work. The interplay between these two men is exceedingly rare in any type of music. Ali and Toumani is profound and powerful, with a soft accumulating force, like the individual drips of ice that form a river. This desert music is very much like the desert itself: it is expansive and immutable, and it will endure.