It’s been 20 years since Ry Cooder introduced Ali Farka Touré to the music world at large with their Grammy-winning collaboration Talking Timbuktu. Upon the album’s release, I read an article in Guitar Player written by Cooder himself where he gives little anecdotes to working with the late Malian legend. At one point, caught up in Touré’s musical spell, the American guitarist decided to pay him a compliment by saying that he was a great blues player. This actually didn’t go over too well. Turns out that Touré didn’t care to be associated with American blues. He referred to musicians who played such music as living “in exile” and described the music that he performed as “[his] music”. And with Talking Timbuktu well in everyone’s rearview mirror, well-rounded listeners know that there is a substantial difference between African blues and American blues. Both are built from the guitar up, both rely on repetition to drive their point across and both are deeply steeped in human emotions. But the two styles can have a very different effect on any given listener. 1994 was the magical year when the blues from different hemispheres were to collide and World Music as a genre in general gained significant traction.
It was also around this time that the first Rough Guide compilation saw the light of day. Since then the World Music Network label has tirelessly compiled releases of various musical themes from all around the globe. The Rough Guide to African Blues is not their first time collecting this style of music. Another compilation with an identical name was released in 2007. But given how burgeoning the Saharan and Malian music scenes have become, even despite the latter’s political turmoil, these Rough Guides just have to play catch-up. This pressing, giving you a moderately generous fourteen tracks clocking in at about an hour, comes with a bonus CD; Alhousseini Anivolla’s 2012 album Anewal/The Walking Man. And that bonus CD comes with a bonus track!
The fact that the compilers reserve the first track for Touré, dead for eight years now, kind of says a lot. Even in death, he is the first poster boy of choice for the African guitar. His recording of “Yer Mali Gakoyoyo” gets things off to an understated start, hardly the impression one is likely to glean from a legend. But just as Touré defended his music as “his”, he also referred to his art as something to which he was in service. In an area of the world where music and storytelling are so very integral to the culture at large, you truly witness the death of ego. Touré uses his music to the same ends that so many other African musicians use – communication and celebration.
It’s up to the rest of the album to make up for Touré’s bare-bones beginning (not that they have to or necessarily should). For instance, while “Jef Jel” by Amadou Diagne has the full band behind him with cymbals that ride and background strings that gently saw, the whole thing is still kept at a hush level. Nuru Kane injects “Niang Balo” with a folk bounce, yet another reminder of how African and American blues can differ within the smallest cadences. Dilon Djindji forcefully shows off his vocal range on “Sofala”, even when during the parts where he isn’t sputtering and growling . A naked guitar and harmonica accompaniment just highlight the storm. A ratty recording of Menelik Wesnatchew’s “Tezeta” is more striking as is the most delicate “Miraisahina (Unity)” by Nogabe Randriaharimalala. The compilation then ends the way it started, only less so. Danyèl Waro’s “Nailé” is voice only (with maybe some soft tapping in the background, it’s difficult to tell).
The upbeat moments stand out with good reason. “Dani Dou” by Samba Touré could be a sing-along and “Tamiditin” by Tamikrest comes with a crackle that almost makes it sound like like Jagger and Richards were in the control booth, giving advice. The Western world’s sense of boogie-woogie probably came from the likes of West African Blues Project’s “Lalumbe”. “Ahel Allel” is Amira Kheir providing falling action, gearing down for “Nailé”. All told, this supplemental Rough Guide provides shading to an already rich genre that you may be pleasantly surprised to hear for the first time. If you were on the fence of writing it off as more of the same, then you really shouldn’t. Besides, there’s a whole other album to dive into in Anewal: The Walking Man. And as spirited as Alhousseini Anivolla’s music is, listening to The Rough Guide to African Blues, the principal CD here, spoils you in the variety department. When you put on Anewal, you need to mentally switch gears in order to listen to an African blues artist who has honed his strengths. The bonus track, “Aiytma”, features the soft voice of Malebo and thereby stretches the Western listening palate of African blues.
It’s been 20 years since the world’s attention was rapt by the Saharan and Malian blues scene, and it was already a flourishing art form before then. But when listening to The Rough Guide to African Blues, it still feels like the whole genre is just getting started. It hasn’t shaken off its naiveté and thus remains a pure form of expression. There are no guarantees that it will remain that way, especially since so many of us in the West are paying attention. But if things ever get corrupted, we always have the Rough Guide series on which to fall back.