Saturday, March 18, 2006

ali farka toure, the wizard of niafunke

The lyrical donkey: Ali Farka Toure; 1939-2006

His name may be known for a grammy winning album with Ry Cooder called Talking Timbuktu. He could have recorded in any location he desired; New York, Paris, London etc. He recorded his guitar work, that gave him the title of the "Johnny Lee Hooker of Africa", in Mali. The recording equiptment was sometimes primitive, compared to what could be found in Los Angeles or New York.

When he played guitar, he got sounds out of it like you never heard before. You were transported to his village.

There is a theory, that American blues, was influenced by Muslim slaves in West Africa. An example is the "Muslim Call To Prayer" compared to "Levee Camp Holler". That theory is strengthened by his music.

Touré used his money to better his people in the town of Niafunké, where he was mayor. He also helped young African musicians succeed.

- Renegade Eye on Ali Farka Toure

I got the above tribute to the recently departed Ali Farka Toure from my favourite blogger Renegade Eye. It's got me thinking about my memories of Ali Farka Toure, who died earlier this month. I recently posted a magazine clip about Malian music in which the writer commented about Toure "battling cancer with the obstinacy that earned him his middle name" - 'farka' is Songhai for 'donkey'. Next we heard, the 'Bluesman of Africa' was dead.

Not for nothing was Ali Farka Toure known as the Bluesman. Those who doubt it should please see Martin Scorsese's Feel Like Going Home, one of 7 films in the director's project tracing the history of the Blues - and released in 2003, the centenary of the Blues. In what is regarded as "the first cultural signpost of the 20th century", W C Handy, waiting at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, heard a travelling bluesman strumming his pain away on his guitar. Handy recorded the encounter for posterity and history, and 100 years later, the US Congress designated 2003 as The Year of the Blues.

Of the 7 films in the Scorsese Blues project, Feel Like Going Home was the only one directed by the man himself. In it, he followed musician Corey Harris on a long journey tracing the origin of the Blues, travelling from the Mississippi Delta all the way through to Niafunke in Mali.

"This is a land of kings," Harris says on arriving in Bamako, Mali." As the journey and the feature film nears its end, he meets with Ali Farka Toure at the bend of the River Niger in Niafunke. These closing scenes with Toure have a magic about them. The River Niger as seen in the film is evocative and the Bluesman of Africa himself is like a musical oracle. I felt like Corey Harris had gone looking for the Wizard of the Blues and found that it was Toure all along.

"Thousands come to visit, but I have never experienced such joy as in these two days, " he told Harris when it was time for the African American to leave.

On his music, Ali Farka Toure said, "This is something that belongs to us. These tunes are neither made for whiskey nor scotch nor beer."

Ali Farka Toure's feeling for music, history and Africa - went deep as the Blues and shimmered like the River Niger itself even there on the screen. And this is how I will remember him.


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