In the 15 years since his self-titled debut, singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré has become known for his musical border crossing. He has worked with Idan Raichel, Dave Matthews, and Julia Easterlin, bringing Songhai music to the world in a distinctly collaborative way. Not only does he carry on the legacy of late father Ali Farka Touré, but he also charts his path forward and does so in exciting ways. The new album Les Racines, then, is surprising, not so much for musical innovations but its adherence to more familiar sounds.
Touré doesn’t come from a long line of musicians; he and his father studied guitar secretly before becoming critically acclaimed for their respective works. Here Touré’s titular roots run deep, both back through his ancestral line and outward through northern Mali. Lyrically, he focuses mainly on local issues and histories, paying tribute to his father and hoping his son will grow up in more peaceful times. The stinging opening track “Gabou Ni Tie” urges youth to follow in the footsteps of their elders. “Ngala Kaourene” calls upon different Malian groups and implores them to find common ground. These first pieces set a tone of tempered idealism, and Touré carries it forward smoothly through the rest of the album.
Musically, Touré remains a consummate and passionate professional. However, they fit seamlessly into the extant body of blues-reminiscent Saharan guitarwork exemplified by the elder Touré, the nimble grooves of Les Racines sound fresh. They loop in full color and leave space for interplay between Touré and a pared-down ensemble of other instruments, which are brought in sparingly. Ngoni, kora, and flute each add their textures–earthy, breezy, often ethereal–as they join the metallic twang of Touré’s guitar and an array of careful percussion. Interactions between these sounds give the album much of its sparkle. “Be Together” is a brilliant example, notes fluttering one after another from strings and winds alike to make for a shimmering ending.
The title track may be the album’s most striking single moment. An instrumental piece, it features Touré’s guitar, an intense center shadowed by a subtle bass line. Weaving intricate patterns around it are quick, delicate kora strings courtesy of Madou Sidiki Diabaté, whose late father, Sidiki Diabaté, was perhaps the first kora player to record a commercial album. The Touré and Diabaté family careers have been intertwined for decades, with Madou’s famed older brother Toumani appearing on Ali Farka Touré’s global breakthrough album in 1988. To hear them playing together on “Les Racines” is simply rapturous.
Les Racines is an album that recognizes the past in the present and its significance for the future. In finding his roots, Vieux Farka Touré is in no way taking a step back. He is instead exploring time and music beyond narrow linear ideas. Indeed, this is beautiful music, as obvious an instant classic as you can get in the so-called “desert blues” category, one Ali Farka Touré never liked, noting that his music was much older than what he thought of as the blues. It’s worth hearing for art’s sake alone. More than that, it’s a space in which Vieux Farka Touré looks in many directions at once, and while doing so, he shares integral parts of his musical world with us.