The blues originated in Mali. Oh, you’ve heard that one already? Well, I think that notion, perpetuated in part by the marketing mavens at Putumayo, oversimplifies this particular slice of musicology. If H.G. Wells could joyride us back to 19th century Saharan Africa, would we really hear some dude strumming away on a guitar (or, perhaps more realistically, a gourd fitted to a broom handle and strung with wires) and exclaim, “Hey, that sounds like the direct antecedent to Charley Patton!” Don’t get me wrong. I’m thoroughly convinced that the polyrhythms, flatted fifths, and a large portion of the flavor of blues vocals closely followed the forced migration of Africans to the New World, with these root elements surviving through work songs and gospels. From there, a slow evolution took place, musical styles intermingling as they always have and always will. African-American inventions cross-pollinated with those carried over from European folk traditions and popular song, and many musical forms were born, not least of which were jazz and the blues.
Enter the late and truly great Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré (b. 1939, d. March 7, 2006). He was a rice farmer all his life, both before and after he became internationally known and acclaimed. Singing the blues was his side gig, as it was for Muddy Waters before Chicago and the electric sound of Chess Records; as it was for Mississippi John Hurt from the Great Depression and until the 1960s folk music revival. This connection to the land, the years of toil, these lead to the audible, almost tangible, kind of “authenticity” that the largely Caucasian (and, especially, the squeamishly comfortable) suburban middle class have been salivating over for the last 50 years or more. They, we, I represent a mammoth slice of the worldwide record-buying pie.
And, so, it was in the latter third of Ali Farka Touré’s recording history that his “career” really began. If you had to guess the name of the man who was most directly responsible for launching said career, who would it be? Well, Ry Cooder, of course! Far more accomplished as a sideman, curator, promoter, producer, and advocate of and for other musicians than he was as a solo artist (which he mostly gave up in the ’80s), Cooder has primed the world stage for a cadre of older Cuban musicians with Buena Vista Social Club, resurrected the long-forgotten song-makers from a Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles with Chavez Ravine (which, although it’s made far less of a splash, is really great), joined forces with Subcontinental mohan vina master V.M. Bhatt, and, most important to this review, introduced the world at large to Ali Farka Touré, thanks to their 1994 collaboration, Talking Timbuktu. The most polished of Touré’s albums, it carried more than enough of that “authenticity” tag to get the Boomers (and even some Gen Xers) digging for their wallets. Even if it doesn’t possess the same weary-yet-resilient vibe that Ali Farka’s other works do, it’s still a very pretty and relaxed CD of “world music,” so tagged because the African blues are diluted (or, depending on your own point of view, enhanced) by Ry’s Hawaiian-sounding guitar licks (did I forget to mention his long-ago stint with Gabby Pahinui?) and his son, Joachim’s, Cuban percussion.
Although Touré chose to retreat from his newfound celebrity and back to his life as a farmer, the floodgates to the marketplace had been opened. Buyers began to search out his earlier albums, including 1991’s powerful and excellent full band release, The Source. In 1996, a collection of his earliest recordings, broadcast in the 1970s, was issued as Radio Mali. His voice was higher back then, but his slyly, mournfully funky style of guitar playing was there from the get-go. Comparisons to John Lee Hooker have followed Touré throughout his career, and rightly so. He first heard Hooker back in the 1960s and has always shared the American bluesman’s rhythmic sensibilities and deeply soulful approach.
This connection to Western blues is brought to the fore on Savane, the final recording made by Ali Farka Touré. Look at him there in his rocking chair, guitar sprawled like a lazy cat across his lap, and his shades deflecting the scorching yellow sun. That’s a blues album cover, if I’ve ever seen one. Of course, the dead giveaway is the proclamation, beneath Ali Farka’s name, that he’s “The King of the desert blues singers,” a slogan that purposefully mimics the label attached to the legendary Robert Johnson (substituting “Delta” for “desert”, of course). The music, too, is Touré’s most overtly blues-leaning. With a wailing harmonica and the ripened voice of its leader calling out between melodic licks, the opening track, “Erdi”, could be Lightnin’ Hopkins (well, aside from the lingual differences, that is). After track two, “Yer Bounda Fara”, an obvious ode to Hooker, he settles further into his own groove on “Beto”, pushing forward the hypnotic melodic spirals common to much North African music, while aided by the sultry combo of a female backing vocalist and some restrained bursts of weeping saxophone. The title track slowly struts, as flashes of electric guitar are complimented by mellifluous flourishes of kora. “Soya” is warm and lively, but laid-back and inviting, with soft percussion burbling underneath. All throughout, Savane pulls off the greatest trick of the album format: It offers plenty of variety, but it also corrals its songs into a unified sound. This could be good mixing and production, but I prefer to attribute this success to the power of Ali Farka Touré. Although in his last year of life, this final record shows Touré still brimming with vitality. Savane is his wonderful farewell gift.