Music Reviews
Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Fula Flute

Malian music legend Ali Farka Toure once said of his home, "For some people, Timbuktu is a place at the end of nowhere. But that's not true - I'm from Timbuktu, and I can tell you that it's right in the center of the world."

Mr. Toure (I've met him, he's reserved, dignified and courteous, and possessed of a sober gravitas that makes it Mister Toure to you) might have been engaging in a little hyperbole since every thinking person knows that Boston is the Hub of the Universe. But a little hyperbole is more than forgivable in light of the long and rich history of the kingdoms of Mali.

Ali Farka Toure himself is a farmer and local (what... chief? mayor? paterfamilias?), who tends to his village first and his music second. In 1995, he begged off a US tour claiming that he could not leave his home because if he did, he risked losing his land in an armed skirmish.

When in 1998, one of his US labels, Hannibal, wanted to record a new record with him Toure insisted the producers bring a mobile recording rig to his compound at Niafunke. The stunning resulting album, aptly titled Niafunke, was recorded whenever farm chores did not press and whenever the mood struck to pick up his guitar.

In 2000, Toure decided to come to the USA for one last tour before devoting all his time to a village irrigation project. I was lucky enough to see his New York date, August 8, 2000, and I can't ever forget it. A big man in person, on stage he looked 10 feet tall, wielding his electric guitar like it was a toy and wrenching from it some of the most searing melodies I have ever heard.

He was playful, switching between guitar and njerka (a small one-stringed fiddle) and stopping to explain to the New York audience what he was singing about in the 11 languages he writes in. About halfway through the show, he struck on the game of lifting his leg way up in the air and bringing it down onto the stage with a huge *boom*. His band worked the *boom* into the deep percolating groove they had built, and soon Toure was *boom*ing away, each one accented by a chord from his guitar that sounded like trees breaking in the wind. The entire night was unforgettable and absolutely one of a kind.

Ali Farka Toure is often compared to John Lee Hooker, whose elemental blues sound seemed to emanate from some half-remembered Mali of the mind, but on that night Ali Farka Toure sounded like Timbuktu.

Before the show, I shared a cab with record producer and Hannibal label owner Joe Boyd, who asked me about African music and what I thought about it. I mentioned Ali Farka Toure, Johnny Clegg, Fela Kuti and a few others before bringing up Angelique Kidjo, who had just released her pop-inflected album Oremi the previous year. Boyd looked at me quizzically and said, "You like that? That speaks to you?" I admitted that it didn't really, it just sounded nice, and he told me that someday, smart kid that I was, I would figure it out, I would get it.

Later that night, I got it.

I bring all this up not because Ali Farka Toure has a new album out but because I was reminded of him and his effect on me today by another group drawing on West African traditions. Called "Fula Flute," after a particular style of flute playing native to the Fulani people of Guinea in which the player sings into the flute as he plays, they have been playing east coast dates over the past couple of years.

The group is composed of a Canadian, a jazz-trained New York bassist, several Malian griots (roughly, hereditary storytellers/bards/historians), and Bailo Bah, the Fuilani flutist. Working on a smaller scale than the larger than life Ali Farka Toure, Fula Flute showcase a nearly-extinct and deeply enthralling folk tradition that (like so many nearly dead folk traditions), begs for a wider audience. I'm on their mailing list, and was notified today that they have a nifty video out in Quicktime which showcases both the Fula flute style and the rolling percussion typical of West African music. Good, interesting, unusual, and beautiful. They've got it.



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