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Ali Farka Toure, Trailblazer of African Music, Dies

ali farka toure(photos: Afropop.org)

Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s pre-eminent musician and world ambassador of African music, died in his sleep at his farm this morning of bone cancer after a long struggle. A Reuters obituary indicated that he was 66. Here is how Banning Eyre eulogized him at Afropop Worldwide:

We’ve lost a giant. Immodest, brilliant, inscrutable, and luminous, Ali Farka Toure has died in Mali, after a long battle with cancer. Born in Kanau, Mali, Ali always remained loyal to the desert north, its peoples, traditions, music and mysteries. Music entranced him from youth, but his noble bloodline never allowed him to embrace it as a profession without misgivings.

In the Heart of the Moon
Toure is perhaps best known for his 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu, which was a reverent, almost spiritual exploration of the nexus between American blues and west African music. It was a masterpiece and won a well-deserved Grammy. But Toure’s musical excellence continued to be rewarded with another Grammy for another seminal collaboration, this time with Toumani Diabate. It produced the shimmering In the Heart of the Moon. In a previous post about this wonderful album, I offered up the song, Hawa Dolo (hear it), shimmering, slow and elegaic piece. It seemed fitting that Toure concluded his career with such a capstone triumph. We can be consoled that before he died he’d completed recording his final record. Reuters calls is a “solo” album but Eyre indicates he recorded it with his band, so go figure.
ali farka toure

In this revealing Acoustic Guitar interview with Elijah Wald, Toure characterized his musical philosophy:

The music I do is a music of education, to influence people and bring them to reason. It is not only a music of peace and prosperity. It has the teachings of the spirits, which one must bring forth. There are messages that one must bring to people, so that they can remain on the right road. This art, it has love and says you must love those around you.

…”My music was always part of my work of education, love, evolution, and criticisms,” Toure says. “I take the tradition, and I translate all that I can of the music of my country. I find an indigenous guitarist who gives me the tunes, and I learn them and practice. The words are already there, they are legends that I know. So I only adapt, I translate that which has been dictated to me by the old people. I speak nine languages, because I am there for everybody, not only for one individual. Honey is not good in only one mouth. And that is what has made me popular and successful, because I play for everyone.”

In the same interview, Toure describes his approach to performance:

Often, as he plays, Toure’s whole face will light up in a smile, and he will seem surprised and amused by the sounds coming from his hands, almost as if the guitar was another musician. “I am as transported as those who are listening,” he says. “Because this is what I live for. This music goes deep into my heart and if my fingers give me satisfaction, if I like what I hear, then I am very, very contented. Of course, there are moments when one cannot feel like that, but then one only has to wait a little while and one will get that feeling back.”

Toure also talks about the mystical sources of his musical inspiration:

“The spirits exist, just like people,” he says. “All the entire world was made with the earth, and man came from the earth, but the spirits came from fire. The spirits are all around us, but to know them one must be a believer and understand Islam. He who doesn’t understand will not believe, because it is not the same culture, the same tribe, the same earth. But the spirits exist in my country and they exist here.” And, he adds, it is the spirits that are at the root of all art. “They are dreams which have been there forever,” he says. “It is not we who created them, it is reality, it is nature. Only, they must have love for a person to give him power.”

Despite his international renown, Toure remained true to his rural roots in northern Mali:

Though he achieved international renown, Farka Toure remained deeply rooted in the traditions of his home region, near the famous Saharan trading town of Timbuktu.

He retreated from music in 1990 to concentrate on his rice farm in the village of Niafunke. When his producer convinced him to record again, an impromptu studio running on generators had to be set up there so he could tend his fields at the same time.

He was appointed mayor of Niafunke, where he will be buried, in 2004 for his efforts to improve the lives of those in the region. He cultivated over 300 hectares of land around the village and set up welfare projects for women and children.

“He’s one of the great, great, great musicians … He is one of a kind: he is the lion of the desert,” Diabate wrote in the liner notes to their album.

Toure’s first instrument and first musical love was the njurkel, a traditional one-stringed lute, which he took up at age 10:

“I made my njurkel myself in 1951,” he says. “It is made with a small calabash, a wooden neck, and a string of horse hair or silver wire. It is not even 50 centimeters [about 20″] long, and it is the most dangerous instrument in Africa, because it is an instrument uniquely for the spirits. It can do things that no other instrument can bring out. There are tunes that I play on the njurkel that I cannot approach on the guitar, at least for the moment.”

…The njurkel is very genetic [a word he uses to mean that it is connected to genii and spirits]. When one is playing it at night, you hear it a kilometer away. In the daytime, it does not reach even twenty meters. I could play it here and someone standing in the doorway would not be able to hear it, but at night you hear it for a kilometer.”

But by the time he was 17, he’d moved to the guitar as Eyre notes:

He was already a teenager skilled at traditional instruments when he first played guitar, encouraged by Guinean maestro Fodeba Keita, founder of the Ballets Africaine.

While I’m less familiar with Toure’s recordings before Talking Timbuktu, one of his best know from this period was The River.

Ali Farka Toure would not want us to mourn his passing. He would encourage us to celebrate–celebrate his music, celebrate life. So break out a bottle of something fine and put on one of his records and drink to his memory and to ourselves.

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  • Rachel March 9, 2006, 10:35 AM

    It’s a real loss for music lovers the world over. “Talking Timbuktu” was one of my ports of entry into African music, and I love it to this day. Baruch dayan emet.