Music

Ali in the Family

Vieux Farka Touré

Vieux Farka Touré continues his late father's musical legacy with a weathered voice, poetic passion, and a new debut album.

Familial duty is a strong factor in numerous countries, though often overlooked in American culture. Children are quick to leave home, go away to school, and "grow up" as it were, which implies separation from one's parents. While embedded in our cultural psychology, this is a rather new phenomenon. Traditional societies considered the family unit a primary focus; hence, children were often expected to pursue the ancestral line.

In Pakistan, the qawwals are musical ambassadors stretching back over 700 years. The lead figure today is Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew of the famous Nusrat (who had no children of his own). In Africa, griots are the poets of their tribes, a title also dependent upon lineage. On occasion others are allowed in -- Senegalese singer Baaba Maal studied with the blind griot Mansour Seck, and continues to perform with him to this day. His family had expected him to undergo the arduous occupation of fishing, and he rebelled, becoming one of his country's most important musical icons.

While not a griot, such a rebellious spirit also fueled Timbuktu native Ali Farka Touré, a man who would become Mali's most famous musician. Thanks to his collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, Touré was propelled into international stardom -- quite a journey for a man whose nine older siblings died before adolescence. He used money acquired from recordings to fix up a disparate Niafunke, the city he became mayor of in 2004. His life was defined by his soulful guitar, rhythmic calabash, and rough, worn vocals, as he became a voice for African blues (with parallels of give-and-take with Mississippi counterparts).

Touré tutored his nephew Afel Bocoum, and played alongside kora great Toumani Diabaté, winning a 2005 Grammy for the jam-session-turned-album In the Heart of the Moon. In March 2006 he passed on due to bone cancer, and a posthumous Savane was released. Aside from these late recordings, he also contributed songs to the work-in-progress of his son Vieux, which has just been released. Vieux Farka Touré (Modiba/World Village) is an evolution of the inspiring tradition his father left behind.

Given the similarities and abundant talent in Vieux's work, this story is not without irony. Ali initially forbade Vieux to pursue music as a career, having experienced decades of disillusionment working within the industry. It took the urging of Diabaté, who invited Vieux into his orchestra, for Ali to accept his son's fate. Without surprise, his offspring had acquired the same stubbornness of father -- Ali's nickname means "donkey", something he wore like a shroud of honor.

Listening to Vieux's debut, one wonders how he could have chosen the path of a soldier, as his father had asked. His guitar playing is mercurial and rapid, though with flourishes of softness. Equally proficient in calabash, the percussive sections are tasteful and eloquent. His voice is the hook that draws the ear in; like his father's, a bit weathered, which adds a natural touch to these 10 excellent songs.

At the foundation is a poetic passion that informs the entire record. His words remind one of Habib Koite, a fellow Malian whose sword is a pen that creates beauty in images. We can sense a spiritual command in each syllable, and the translations admit such. "Ma Hine Cocore", for one, is a plea for unity:

My brothers and sisters

You must know how to hold onto destiny and how to live together

There are people who have everything and believe this won't end

The world was so hard that it became easy

The bad things that we say to one another (that's enough)

The swindling amongst people, that's enough

The comings and goings of bad people, that's enough

Injustice, violence, the deception must stop.

Nowhere does his message override musical integrity. Visit his MySpace page and you see the laidback, fierce guitar playing in his home village; watch the video for the reggae-tinged "Ana", and the community intent of his music shines through. Vieux Farka Touré is an ambitious, diverse album with a lyrical epoxy bridging the gaps. The two songs featuring Ali -- "Tabara" and "Diallo" -- both make gorgeous use of the electric guitar. To these ears, however, it is Vieux's work with Diabaté that prove masterful. Both instrumental songs, the weaving of guitar and kora on the winsome "Toure de Niafunke" and heartbreaking "Diabaté" show a determined vulnerability only devoted artisans can mold.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the fickle American audience to Touré's work. So much global music depends on the process of trends to "break" into a widespread audience. Vieux has so much going for him, sonically as well as in business. This is the second release by Brooklyn-based Modiba Productions, whose first outing -- the compilation ASAP: The Afrobeat Sudan Aid Project, which featured Tony Allen, Keziah Jones, and Antibalas -- raised over $130,000 for relief funds in Darfur. Teaming this time with Bée Sago, a UNICEF-affiliated program that donates mosquito nets to the residents of Mali to help fight malaria, 10 percent of all proceeds from Vieux's work will go to this cause.

This includes not only his debut, but Vieux Remixed, a collection of electronic interpretations by global-minded DJs and producers such as Cheb i Sabbah, Nickodemus, Yossi Fine, Chris Annibell, and DJ Center. Each remix takes Vieux's predominantly acoustic work and puts it into a club setting, be it Center's live conga and horns jazz mix, Annibell's Stevie Wonder funk, or Sabbah's and Nickodemus's full-on dance floor crushers. Partnering with the Lawrence Lessig's Creative Commons Mixter project, Vieux's song "Ana" will be available for the entire month of February, to download and create your own interpretation.

As Vieux engages in his first American tour in February, he will be continuing the work of his father: to promote the culture of Africa in all beauty and tragedy. Through his music, his community is nurtured economically and spiritually, as is the intent of indigenous folk music. To tell the story of one's people is to, in some ways, recite the history of the world. Cultures are built and defined by artists interpreting their tales, and 2007 is the year Vieux's story is being heard.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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