Vieux Farka Touré came to town recently to play a ninety-minute concert that was as astonishing in its musical virtuosity as it was subtle in its showmanship. The crowd ranged from college students to white-haired ladies and whatever mood they all arrived in, they left the hall laughing and bobbing with delight.
Touré comes from Mali, the son of Ali Farka Touré, one of the nation’s most renowned musicians. Both men play the guitar, acoustic and electric, and although they are often referred to as blues guitarists—and obviously, the influence of American blues artists can’t be discounted—much of their music sounds to my ears more African than not.
For this appearance Touré was joined by three other musicians. He spent much of the evening trading licks with Moussa Diabaté, who played the ngoni. The ngoni has a short neck attached to a skin-covered soundbox. Although it is similar to the West African akonting, potential progenitor of the banjo, in tone and range the ngoni sounds to me more like a mandolin. Joining the two lead instrumentalists were a solid rhythm section composed of John “JaJa” Bashengezi on electric bass and American Tim Keiper, who alternated between the calabash (a semi-spherical percussion instrument played with thin sticks for high notes and the heels of the hand for bass) and a conventional drum kit. Touré is the sole vocalist in the quartet.
Touré père has been compared to John Lee Hooker; Touré fils is unfortunately dubbed “the African Hendrix.” (Bashengezi no doubt had this in mind when, during the evening’s final number and band-member introductions, he tilted his bass up behind his head and soloed with the instrument balanced on the nape of his neck.) But for me, the comparison isn’t so much unwarranted as it is unnecessary. Since I don’t have the training or vocabulary to adequately describe Touré’s style, let me try to address the mechanics of his playing.
He played the entire evening (and in every video clip I’ve seen of him) with a capo on the third fret of his guitar’s neck. Most often, he plays runs of notes, ascending or descending, in first position–that is, using the next three frets up. Assuming that he’s using something like a conventional tuning, this means he’s mostly working in about two-and-a-half octaves, from the G below middle C to high C. Occasionally, during solo breakouts, he’d work his way up another octave (the crowd goes wild!) for a few bars of pyrotechnics, but mostly he was dazzling in a more restricted range, one that seemed to complement the ngoni well.
These repeated runs up and down the scales formed a rhythmic core that structured the music and allowed for improvisational fills: in both cases his dexterity and speed were awesome to behold, and Diabaté proved himself equally competent. Even when Touré sang, he continued picking out these runs; I don’t think I ever saw anything that resembled a chord throughout the evening.
I won’t say the group stated out slowly, as even on the one quiet number of the evening, Touré’s fingers were flying throughout, but the pace really picked up on the third number, “Safare.” Soon Touré and Diabaté were on their feet moving in a step that looked like a cross between a village dance and an American R&B act, while a liquid riff spilled up and down the scale: this is what’s meant by world music, I realized: the influences are moving back and forth in ways that locate the results outside of either tradition.
After the first couple of numbers, Touré began to ask the audience, “are you good?” I’m not sure he was satisfied with the response. Finally, about half way into the performance, he suggested that the next number might get us swaying in our seats. But that wasn’t good enough, either. With a smile, he asked why we weren’t dancing, and someone in the audience called out that dancing wasn’t allowed. Touré found that unsatisfactory, and informed us that for tonight, he was the boss (and then looked sheepishly over his shoulder as if a venue rep might contradict him). Then he asked for the house lights to be turned up; then he told us all to stand up. From that moment on, it was all dancing. The last two numbers of the evening were extended mashups. We were exhorted to dance, we were taught a rudimentary call and response, we were required to beat time with our hands.
Each of these last two numbers went on for at least ten minutes and when you’re up on your feet swaying and clapping, you get sensitized quickly to the changes in tempo and rhythm: in other words, you get a quick and effective education into the complexities of the music as your body is forced to adjust to the changes. In the final number, when Touré introduced the members of the group, and Bashengezi wowed everyone with his Hendrix stylings, Diabatê took his own solo by plunking out “Frère Jacques” on the ngoni. The audience, unbidden, began to sing along—in French! This is what I meant earlier when I referred to Touré’s subtle showmanship. He orchestrated the audience’s participation and responses as carefully as he directed the band. When the musicians returned to the stage for their encore, Touré asked “Do you want to dance, or listen?” There was no doubt we were dancing, and Touré seemed well pleased by that answer.
Much of the evening’s music came from Touré’s most recent album, Mon Pays (My Country), his response to the civil war instigated by fundamentalists in Mali, zealots who want to see the kind of music that Touré makes banned. Touré clearly is fighting his own fight against that repression. You can catch the spirit in this recording made in December 2013 in Charleston, WV, courtesy of National Public Radio, which features four songs from Mon Pays. Even better, this video of the band performing “Safare” captures the style, the spirit, the chemistry, and the proficiency of the musicians in a way that I could never hope to with mere words.