Ali Farka Touré  

"l knew the spirit who gave me the gift very well. And I remember that night in Niafunke (Toure's home village). A night I'll never forget. I was about thirteen years old. I was chatting with some friends. l had a monochord (single string guitar) in my hand. l was wandering playing ordinary songs, just like that. It was about 2.00 am. l got to a place where l saw three girls standing like steps of stairs, one higher than the other. l lifted my right foot. The left one wouldn't move. l stood like that until 4.00 am. Next day l walked to the edge of the fields. l didn't have my instrument with me. l saw a snake with a strange mark on its head. Only one snake. I still remember the colour. Black and white. No yellow, no other colour, just black and white. And it wrapped itself around my head. l brushed it off, it fell and went into a hole and I fled. Since then l started to have attacks."

"I entered a new world. It's different from when you're in a normal state; you're not the same person you know. You don't feel anything anymore, whether it's fire, water or if you are beaten. I was sent to the village of Hombori to be cured and l stayed there for a year. When l felt better, I returned home to my family. There l began playing again and l was very well received by the spirits. I have all the spirits. I possess all the spirits and l work with them. I was born among them and grew up among them."

The Niger is the greatest river that flows through the desert of Mali; a shimmering piece of silver where life seems to go on unchanged, as it has done for centuries. When you travel by boat to Niafunke (Ali's home town in the North West of the country), there's a sense of timelessness. Long narrow pirogues sail low on the water, heavy with fishing nets, trading goods and passengers, the boatmen forcing their way in the shallows between islands of low bush and yellow grasses. On either side, on an endless scorched horizon of sand, rock, steppe and scrubland, extends out the Sahel; Hazy blue skies, yellow and red earth, grey mud-brick villages, black rocks dotted with patches of brilliant green fields painstakingly irrigated by local farmers. Ali is one of these farmers and this is what constitutes the colour of his music.

The Niger has its own life. At the height of the dry season it shrinks down to a snake-like curl between wide sandy banks that measure up to half a mile-or more. During the rainy season the placid waters flood the plains, forming lakes that can rage like the ocean. The once silent river suddenly comes alive with howling winds and torrential storms, bringing the much needed-rain like a vengeance, covering the banks with a temporary coat of emerald grass.

To get to Niafunke, where Ali lives with his family on his farmlands in the north of Mali, you can either travel by car in the dry season or for short periods of the year by steamer from Koulikoro (east of Bamako). During the slow and arduous drive in the sweltering dry heat the scrubland landscape is intermittently interrupted by the hazy sight of a tiny village or, on the horizon, a huge herd of cattle. After the rains the steamer stops at the beautiful river towns of Djenne and Mopti, chugging along the majestic mud-brick mosques with their wedding-cake like turrets and creamy surfaces,the flotilla of pirogues painted with red, white, blue and green abstract designs, the young girls washing clothes on the banks., the women selling pottery, fruit and vegetables and the fishermen casting nets... The muezzin's call to prayer drifts downstream. It's an unhurried journey, time to reflect on the strength, diversity, and natural rhythm of local culture, in which Ali's music is so firmly rooted.

Ali was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau near Gourma Rahous on the banks of the River Niger in the north west of Mali. He was the tenth son of his mother but the only one to survive to infancy. "I lost nine brothers of the same mother and father. The name I was given was Ali Ibrahim, but it's a custom in Africa to give a child a strange nickname if you have lost the other children." The nickname they chose for Ali was 'Farka' meaning donkey, an animal admired for its strength and tenacity. "But let me make one thing clear" he says, "I'm the donkey that nobody climbs on!"

When Ali was still a child his father died while serving in the French army, then the family moved south along the river to their present home Niafunke. With a population of over twenty thousand people, Niafunke is one of the larger villages scattered on this sparse, arid semi-desertic region. The lack of electricity and telephone lines contributes to the tranquil atmosphere and there is always the cooling breeze from the river. People make their living by farming, cattle herding and fishing and a great deal of work is spent irrigating the land. Touré enjoys life there where he lives a peaceful existence with his wife and eleven children.

Niafunke evolves around the trade generated by the quay, which wakes up from its usual sleepiness whenever the steamer pulls in, springing to frenzied pitch with the shouts of traders, hawkers and travellers. As the steamer departs, the monotony of life in a small Sahelian town settles back in. Music is mostly performed at weddings, christening ceremonies and circumcision parties, held in the open courtyards and wide sandy streets, with musicians playing a variety of graceful dance styles, like the Takamba and Touareg Hekkam. Music is also heard on radio and cassette and the preference here is still for local music. Mostly, though life in Niafunke is taken up with the arduous business of farming the land.

Ali is Niafunke's most famous citizen. Although internationally known as a musician he regards himself as a farmer. In Mali, music, although it is prized above anything else, is mostly the monopoly of castes of hereditary musicians, whose special role, for centuries has been to perform the praises and genealogies of noble families and to recite noble deeds and proverbs. Ali comes from a noble background. There is no tradition of music in his family. But early in his life, he was attracted by the force of music. He was born "child of the river".

In Niafunke, as in most of Mali, the dominant religion is Islam and Ali is a devout Muslim. But in this part of the world Islam co-exists with a much older indigenous belief system connected with the mysterious power of the Niger. People believe that under the water there is a whole world of spirits called Ghimbala - male and female djinns with their own character and history and symbolic colours and ritual object; all this is vividly portrayed in the local mythology .These djinns control both the spiritual and temporal world. When the harmony of this two worlds goes wrong , as it inevitably happens in this harsh, unpredictable climate, when there are unexplained illnesses or sudden natural disasters, then people get together to hold spirit ceremonies, in which music and dance are the central activity. Then thanks to music, spirits may accept the gifts, and if so, it is considered as an auspicious sign. Those who have the ability to communicate with the spirits are called "children of the river."

Ali had no formal schooling and his childhood was marked by farming. But he was also mesmerised by the music played at spirit ceremonies in the villages along the banks of the Niger. He would sit and listen with amazement as musicians sang and played the favoured instruments of the spirits: jurukele (single string guitar), n'jarka (single string violin) and n'goni (four string lute). His family did not regard music as a worthy occupation and the boy's interest was not encouraged. He was however a fiercely independent and self-determined young boy and at the age of twelve he fashioned his first instrument, a "jurukele" (single string guitar that he presented as a gift to Ry Cooder many years later).

Ali learned very easily and naturally to play guitar even if he suffered of illness caused by his contact with the spirit world. He was sent away to be cured and when he returned he quickly became recognised for his power to communicate with the spirits. Ali was greatly influenced by his grandmother Kounandi Samba who was famous in the area as a priestess of the Ghimbala. But after her death, he was dissuaded to take over her. "Because of Islam, l don't want to practice this type of thing too much...these spirits can be good to you or bad, so l just sing about them, but its our culture, we can't pass it by ." Many of his songs are about the spirits and he always travels with his n'jarka violin as well as recordings of spirit music which he listens to whenever it's possible.

As a teenager Ali worked as a taxi driver and car mechanic and he also spent some time as a river ambulance pilot. He travelled widely in these jobs and continued to play music in ceremonies and for his pleasure, with small groups and accompanied some singers. By his early twenties he was able to speak seven Malian languages fluently and had mastered the n'goni (traditional four string lute), n'jarka violin and Fulani bamboo flute. He learned a vast repertoire of music and legend from the various masters he encountered on his travels. "I had to use the experience of the heroes of music, both of those who are still alive or those who are dead, to become a good musician. This experience gave me the opportunity to know the culture of this music, its biography, legend and history."

Ali is Sonrhaï, ethnic group which form the majority of the population of Niafunke, but there are also many other languages spoken in the region: Peuhl (the language of the Fulani nomadic pastoralists), Bozo, Bambara, Dogon, Zarma and Tamascheq (the language of the Touareg). Touré sings in all these languages but the majority of his repertoire is in Sonrhaï and Peuhl.

In 1956, during his travels, Ali saw a performance of the National Ballet of Guinea featuring the great Malinke guitarist Fodeba Keita. "That's when l swore l would become a guitarist. l didn't know his guitar but l liked it a lot. l felt l could do the same and that I could prove it." He began to borrow guitars to practice and found that it was very easy to transpose his traditional guitar technique to the Western instrument. At about the same time he added percussion, drums and accordion to his musical skills (even making a few appearances performing Charles Aznavour repertoire!).

Upon Mali gaining independence from the French in 1960 the new government under President Modibo Keita initiated a policy to promote the arts and cultural troupes were formed to represent each of Mali's six administrative regions. From 1962 Ali worked with the Niafunke district troupe. He composed songs, played guitar and rehearsed singers and dancers in a troupe numbering a hundred and seventeen people. He was extremely proud of the troupe which was successful in the biannual competitions held in Mopti throughout the 1960's. Ali also won numerous athletic prizes. "I did my best to see adoptive village awarded. I'm very found of my village!"

In 1968 (the year Modibo Keita was overthrown by Moussa Traoré),Ali made his first trip outside Africa because he was selected (along with guitarists Kelitigui Diabate and Djelimadi Tounkara) to represent Mali at an international festival of the arts in Sofia, Bulgaria. They performed arrangements of traditional music with Ali on guitar, flute, djerkel and njarka. It was in Sofia on April 21st ,1968 that he bought his first guitar.

In 1970, Ali's work took him from Niafunke to Mopti and later to the capital, Bamako. Here he began a decade working for National Radio Mali as an engineer. He also played as part of Radio Mali's Orchestra until it was dislocated in 1973. In the 1960's Toure became well-known as a great traditional musician through his broadcasts on Radio Mali playing flute and n'goni. Throughout the 1970's he brought his unique guitar style to the attention of the country in further broadcasts. In the advice of a friend who is journalist, he sent a number of recordings of these broadcasts to the SonAfric record company in Paris. A few months later, the first album of Ali Farka Touré (amongst the very first commercial records of Malian music) was released. The four songs of that album are included in this collection. He continued to record in Bamako and send the tapes to Paris and a total of seven albums were released. The first five of them are now extremely rare.

The 1970's was a period of intense musical activity in Mali. It's at this period that a rich mixture of musical styles arrived for the first time in Bamako. First, there was the wealth of Mali's own diverse musical traditions; and hen, there were foreign styles that were making an impact on local dance orchestras.

The major influences on Mali at the time were dance music from Cuba, rumba from Zaire, the guitar styles from neighbouring Guinea and the music of African American singers like James Brown, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. Ali is still a great fan of all these - partly as he says because he hears so much of his own music in them.

Of all these music's the one which struck him as most similar to his own was the blues. In 1968 a friend who was studying in Bamako played him records of James Brown, Jimmy Smith, Albert King and John Lee Hooker. He was immediately struck by the thought that "this music has been taken from here". ln Hooker's music especially he heard echoes of Tamascheq music. Recordings of Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker are still very popular in Niafunke. Although Touré was very impressed by Hooker's music he says he was not influenced by it. More, it served to confirm to him the value and international aspects of his own traditions.

Throughout the 1970's, Ali established himself a formidable reputation in Mali as a solo artist. He pioneered the adaptation of Sonrhaï, Peuhl and Tamascheq styles to the guitar. Even today, few have followed his path. His charismatic person, his fine voice and intricate flowing guitar technique, his good looks and enigmatic character, have all contributed to give him prestige. He remains uncompromisingly wedded to his traditional music, refusing to "go commercial". His songs celebrate love, friendship, peace, the land, the spirits, the river and Mali; all expressed in dense metaphors.

ln 1987 for the first time since the Festival of Sofia in 1968, Touré travelled alone outside of Mali to play his first concert. Showing no signs of nerves or unfamiliarity with his surroundings and with absolute and supreme confidence in his music he played a masterful series of shows winning audiences everywhere. In the same year his first recording with the small independent U .K. label World Circuit was an instant success. Since then he has undertaken extensive tours of Europe, U.S.A. Canada and Japan and has recorded four more albums for the label. His recent recordings have been made with more advanced recording technology and he has collaborated with international artists such as Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. But his early recordings, "when I was absolutly crazy of guitar", says Toure, have a power and ambiance of their own.

Sleeve Notes by Lucy Duran.

Maj 11/01/2004