I like to consider myself fairly open minded when it comes to music from other countries – “world music,” if you will. (Although I detest the term because it suggests that anything other than Western music can all be clumped together under the same umbrella) When you open your ears to music from different cultures it’s often striking how different their approach is to the very elements of music that we find rudimentary. Take rhythm as an example. In the Western world, the 4/4 time signature (ONE and TWO and THREE and FOUR and) is the benchmark for most popular music, and from hearing it so much you may expect every song you hear to follow the same pattern. However, a lot of music from other cultures is based on an entirely different time scheme. When listening to Indian, Turkish or Japanese music, (to name but a few) one is struck by how different the very core of the compositions is, and of course when you change this one basic aspect, it leads to a greater freedom to explore different melodies, harmonies etc. However, at the other end of the spectrum, one can listen to music from a far-off land and be struck by the uncanny similarities to the music that we are more familiar with. Such is the feeling I experience when listening to Ali Farka Touré; a guitarist from Mali.
Now, anyone who knows a bit about American blues music knows that it developed from African-Americans around the beginning of the 1900’s. Its musical origins were a mix of folk, gospel and music taken from Western Africa, where the ancestors of these African-Americans were taken from. Of course the genre has changed and become much more than the sum of its influences, but it is still quite obvious to tell what sort of music is influenced by the blues, or indeed influenced the blues. Ali Farka Touré’s Savane represents a bridge between the genres of the blues and traditional Malian folk music. Given that the album was released in 2006 it’s hard to tell if Touré stuck exclusively to the playing in the Malian tradition or if he was influenced by the now-developed American blues style, but it doesn’t matter much. The music contained in the album is as fascinating as it is brilliant.
The subtitle of the album – “King of the Desert Blues Singers” couldn’t be more apt. Touré sings in a variety of African languages, and his voice (despite being 64 when the album was recorded) is resonant and commanding. Like Robert Johnson, the king the Delta blues singers, Touré is also a skilled guitarist, dazzling us with fluid lines on the electric guitar, languorously plucking on the acoustic, but at all times drawing us in with his astounding musicianship. A rather collaborative album, Touré’s guitar and voice take centre stage but are surrounded by such players as basses, violins, African percussion instruments and an occasional saxophone or harmonica. (the latter two obviously add a more Western feel to the album)
The connections to the blues are instantly obvious. The pained vocals, the hypnotic, pulsating guitar lines and the sparse feel of the music are shared features of this album and the blues. Among the bluesiest songs on the album is the title track, Savane. Snaking along with a comfortable pace, the song maintains a steady pulse with the assistance of a slightly menacing guitar riff while coloured with Touré’s half-whispered vocals and composed guitar interplay with a ngoni player. The feel of the song is not unlike John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” Yer Bounda Fara starts off with a subdued guitar and vocal from Touré before the assistance of some backing vocalists appear to flavor the track. The steady rhythm again harkens back to the blues. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s incredible how some of these songs, while in a different language and from another part of the world, sound so familiar in ways.
Other songs of note include Soya, with its sunny, almost Caribbean feel, and Penda Yoro, which features a driving beat and a searing harmonica. You can picture yourself speeding along a desert track in the blazing sunshine with this song on. Touré’s call-and-response lyrics strengthen the ties between this music and blues; his guitar playing is intense, melodic and effortless. N’Jarou concludes the album; a lazy number with saxophone and harmonica. Ali Farka Touré never sounded more relaxed. Quite a fitting end I believe, as this was to be his final album, released posthumously after his death from cancer aged 66. If his attitude to death reflects in any way his attitude in this song, I believe we can be certain he had nothing to fear in those final days of life.
I’ve gone on a little bit about how the music is connected to the blues, but I want to stop for a minute for fear I mislead the readers. The music is certainly connected to and influenced by the blues, both historically and professionally. (The saxophone player, Pee Wee Ellis, worked with Van Morrison) But despite this, the music still breathes a life of its own and reflects the heartland of Africa. Several pieces are very traditional in structure and feature very little Western instrumentation at all – Hanana, for example, is instrumental, featuring wild African percussion and violin. Gambari Didi features Mamadou Kelli’s vocals talking over the percussion-heavy, repetitive instrumentation. Having said all that, it’s hard to tell sometimes where the “blues” music ends and the “Malian” music begins. Yet this is the genius of the album; the seamless interweaving of two genres that, 200 years ago, could have been one and the same.
Given that this album is from another country and the lyrics sang in a different language, I don’t expect many people to be too keen on the idea of it. However, I urge you, even if it’s just as a sort of cultural exploration, to try and listen to this album. The musicianship is rich even if the musicians themselves weren’t, the links between east and west are astounding and the overall quality of the album is as strong as anything you’d expect from The Beatles. If this is your first foray into “world” music, I can’t think of a better place to start, and if you have an open mind it will open up a whole new field of musical exploration.
Words - Adam