Wednesday, December 01, 2004
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
that night, I got it.
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.
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.