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The Malian Blues

Finding the soul of American blues music an ocean away

Ali Farka Toure plays the music of his--and our--roots.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/14/2010

Ali Farka Toure died in 2006, but the Malian guitarist left behind an album that illuminates the mysterious connection between West African music and American blues as few records have. The new disc, Ali and Toumani (Nonesuch), pairs Toure's guitar with Toumani Diabate's kora, and in the interaction between the two instruments, one European and one African, you can hear what happened when kidnapped Malians found themselves in North America in the 18th century with kora tunes dancing in their heads, but only guitars close at hand.

The kora is a 21-string harp with a large, resonating gourd as its base. The gourd sits between the musician's knees, and the strings fan out from the central post, sticking straight up from the pumpkin-like body. Diabate, also a Malian, uses both hands to pick out shimmering, syncopated arpeggios, and when Toure echoes those same phrases on his steel-string acoustic guitar, the similarity to the blues of such Mississippi guitarists as John Lee Hooker, Skip James, and Fred McDowell is unmistakable.

So here is the missing link. Anyone who has truly fallen in love with blues-based American music--whether it's Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, Prince or Jay-Z--has wondered where it came from. It was obviously rooted in the music that slaves brought over from West Africa, but for years no one could find African recordings that closely resembled American blues recordings. It was only in 1988, when the album Ali Farka Toure was widely distributed in the West that we got an inkling. And it was only in 2005, when Toure and Diabate released their first duo album, the Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon, that we could hear the transmission from kora to guitar.

We can hear even more nuances on Ali and Toumani, recorded in the greater clarity of a London studio with fewer accompanying instruments. The circumstances encouraged the two men to play more quietly, as if they were at home rather than on stage. The result is a subtlety, a sheer beauty that surpasses Toure's earlier work. This is not the energetic, rhythmic music of his younger recordings; this is the reflective, uncluttered music of an older, wiser man. Toure knew he was dying from bone cancer--he often had to stop during a take because of the pain--and he approached the session as an examination of his lifetime in music.

The crucial track is "Sina Mory," the first song Toure had ever heard played on guitar. He had been playing the one-string djerkel, the one-string bowed njarka, and the four-string ngoni, but it wasn't until he was 17 that he heard Guinean griot Fodeba Keita playing this song about an evil stepmother on a six-string European guitar. A dozen years later, Toure had his own guitar, and four years after that he was a star on Radio Mali. On the new album, he sings the song in his gruff tenor, then plays the same lilting tune on his guitar, surrounding the single-note lead line with sympathetic notes. Then, Diabate's kora adds a whole swarm of such notes. It's as if the tune has slowly blossomed from djerkel to kora to guitar, from melody into harmony before our very ears.

Several of the tracks hearken back to the late '50s and early '60s, when Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and neighboring countries won their independence from European colonizers. "Sabu Yerkoy" is an Afro-Cuban salsa with Songhai lyrics that declare, "The independence of Mali did us good/ As we have our land back." "Be Mankan" is the national anthem of Guinea, and "Doudou" combines several tunes from that period. "Machengoidi," which Toure had recorded twice before, is patriotic paean to Mali, but here it is done as a slow, almost wistful, instrumental, with the rippling spray of notes from the kora distilled into more concise phrases on the guitar--in much the same way African-Americans must have distilled their memories of African songs onto their new instruments.

Toure was not born into a griot family as his duet partner was. The three most prominent griot families in West Africa are the Diabates, the Keitas, and the Kouyates, and Bassekou Kouyate has emerged as the leading advocate of the traditional Malian instrument, the ngoni. With four strings laid across a goat skin stretched over a canoe-shaped wooden body, the instrument combines the melodic and percussive qualities of the banjo and is often thought to be the banjo's ancestor. Much like the banjo before Earl Scruggs, the ngoni was considered an accompanying instrument until 1985 when a 19-year-old Kouyate added a strap to the lap instrument and stepped to the front of the stage to solo along with the guitars.

Kouyate kept messing with the ngoni, adding strings for harmonic flexibility and creating a bass ngoni to go with the traditional baritone, tenor, and alto instruments. Thus he was able to form his own band, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, comprised of four differently pitched ngonis, two percussionists, and a female lead singer (Kouyate's wife Amy Sacko). The band's new album, I Speak Fula (Next Ambiance), features guest appearances by Toumani Diabate and Vieux Farka Toure (Ali's son), a return favor for Kouyate's contributions to the older Toure's Savane and to half a dozen Diabate recordings.

In contrast to the subdued, elegiac mood of Ali and Toumani, I Speak Fula is a dance-band record. As in much West African music, the chords are broken into separate notes, but Kouyate's band cycles through those notes so briskly, so insistently, that the tunes tumble forward with an irresistible momentum. The chords rarely change, even as the melody is constantly moving, and the tension between the singer and the hypnotic one-chord vamps should sound familiar to fans of R.L. Burnside and the North Mississippi Allstars. Kouyate, the lead ngoni player, spins fascinating variations on the underlying broken chords to keep that tension from ever growing monotonous.

When Nashville banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck traveled through Africa in 2005 looking for the origins of his instrument, it was inevitable that he would wind up on Kouyate's doorstep in Mali's capital city of Bamako. The title of both the documentary movie and audio recording from that trip, Throw Down Your Heart, comes from the tune Fleck performed with Kouyate in the latter's home. Now, Fleck has released the web site-only CD Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions, Part 2 (belafleck.com), which offers 14 more tracks from the same trip.

Included are two tracks with Kouyate. "Kandjo (aka Sumu)" features the quartet of Fleck, Kouyate, Sacko, and calabash player Alou Coulibaly on a home-style, meditative piece not unlike the Toure/Diabate duets. "Mali Jam" is just that: a free-for-all improvisation featuring Fleck and Bamako's top instrumentalists (Kouyate, Coulibaly, Djelimady Tounkara, Lassana Diabate, and Haruna Samake); the playing builds from a patient balafon intro to a blur of ngoni and banjo notes. The CD also features music from Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Madagascar, but six of the best tracks come from such Malian musicians as Oumou Sangare and the above players.

Perhaps because it was isolated by poverty, the desert, and its landlocked geography, Mali has retained more of the pre-slave-trade character of West African music than any of its neighbors (just as Appalachia retained the pre-immigration character of Anglo-Celtic music long after that sound had died out everywhere else). Whether it's the semi-arid farmlands of the nation's south, where Toure, Diabate, and Kouyate grew up, or the Saharan desert of the north, the base of the great nomad guitar band Tinariwen (whose Imidiwan: Companions was the best world-music release of 2009), Malian music is so close to thewearly roots of American music that the family resemblance is impossible to ignore. That's why the kora and ngoni sound so comfortable alongside the guitar and banjo; that's why Malian tunes can be so easily mistaken for the trance-boogie blues of North Mississippi and can be heard so clearly in everything that grew out of those blues.

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