Ali Farka Touré

Biography


1939 – 2006

 Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré was a giant of African music. He was the first to attract international attention to the music of Mali as the African roots of the blues. He released eight albums on World Circuit, won three Grammy awards and became a musical ambassador for both Mali and the African continent.

Ali was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau on the banks of the Niger in the north west of the country. He was his mother’s tenth son and the first to survive infancy. While Ali was still an infant his father died while serving in the French army, and the family moved south along the river to Niafunké, the village he called home for the rest of his life. 

Ali was attracted to the power of music from an early age. In Mali, music is traditionally played by hereditary musical families, but Ali came from a noble background and his family disapproved. But he was fascinated by the ghimbala ceremonies for the water spirits, or genii, that inhabit the river. He would listen in awe as musicians sang and played the preferred instruments of the spirits: njerkle (single string guitar), njarka (single string fiddle) and ngoni (four string lute). Aged twelve he fashioned his first instrument, a njerkle guitar.

Ali was recognised for his gift with the spirits, but his Islamic beliefs kept him from getting seriously involved. However, he always travelled with his njarka violin as well as recordings of spirit music which he listened to whenever possible. Ali came from the Songhai (or Sonraï) ethnic group which is the majority population in Niafunké. He mastered several traditional instruments and made a point of singing in many local languages although most of his repertoire was in Songhai and Peul.

In 1956 Ali saw the National Ballet of Guinea featuring the great Malinké guitarist Fodéba Keita. ‘’That’s when I swore I would become a guitarist,” he said. Ali began to play using borrowed guitars and found it easy to translate his traditional technique to the Western instrument. After independence in 1960, 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 Niafunké district troupe which was successful in the biannual competitions held in throughout the 1960s. In 1968 (the year Modibo Keita was ousted in a coup by Moussa Traoré), Ali made his first trip outside Africa (with Keletigui Diabaté and Djelimady Tounkara) to represent Mali at an international festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was in Sofia that Ali bought his first guitar.

Also in 1968, a student friend in the capital Bamako played Ali records by African American musicians James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith and Albert King. But it was the guitar blues of John Lee Hooker that made the most impact. Ali was immediately struck by the thought that “this music had been taken from here”.    

Ali spent the Seventies working for Radio Mali as a sound engineer in Bamako. He brought his unique guitar style to the attention of the country via many radio broadcasts and sent recordings to the Son Afric record company in Paris. In a matter of months the first Ali Farka Touré album with Nassourou Sare on ngoni was released (one of the first commercial records of Malian music). A total of seven LPs were released with a selection of tracks later released by World Circuit as Radio Mali (1996). 

In 1986 two of the Son Afric albums started to generate interest amongst radio DJs in the UK including Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett. “Whenever I played a track, the response confirmed we’d discovered something outstanding,” Kershaw remembers, “one of those African artists who could connect with listeners who previously did not think they were African music fans.” World Circuit tracked him down and he was invited for concerts in the UK in 1987. His first recording outside Africa, Ali Farka Touré (1987), was a great success for World Circuit with vocals, guitar and percussion all played by Ali.

This led to a series of international tours and seven further albums for the label: The River (1989); The Source (1991) with a small group of accompanying musicians, including Afel Bocoum; Talking Timbuktu (1993), the groundbreaking duo with Ry Cooder which won a Grammy and confirmed Ali’s status as an artist of international repute. 

Although internationally known as a musician, Ali regarded himself as a farmer. Despite his success, he became increasingly reluctant to leave his farm in Niafunké. World Circuit’s Nick Gold decided that the only way to make another record was to take the mountain to Mohammed and bring a studio to Niafunké. The recording was made in an abandoned agricultural school and Niafunké was released in 1999, extensively featuring the guitar playing of his protégé Afel Bocoum. Ali continued to work on the land and was elected mayor of Niafunké in 2004.

After years of turning down invitations, Ali gave his first major concert in Europe for five years at BOZAR in Brussels, which featured a guest appearance from Toumani Diabaté. This led to a final trio of albums partly recorded at the riverside Mandé Hotel in Bamako. In the Heart of the Moon (2005), a gorgeous duo album with kora player Toumani Diabaté, won a Grammy. It was the first time the two musicians, over a generation apart, had worked together and Ali delved into the Mandé traditions of southern Mali. The repertoire dates from the 1950s and ‘60s, the time when Ali was inspired to take up the electric guitar by Fodéba Keita (sadly the Guinean musician had been executed on Sekou Touré’s orders in 1969). The sessions for the follow-up were recorded in London in 2005. Ali was already ill and often in pain. “It was hard for him to make this album,” says Toumani, “but he wanted to continue”. It also features repertoire from the north and south, including ‘Sina Mory’, the song he first heard Fodéba Keita play in 1956 coming full circle. As a finishing touch, Cuban bassist Cachaito López joined them on bass. Ali & Toumani wasn’t released till 2010.

The second of the Mandé albums was with Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra, and third was Ali’s final album and quite a send-off featuring numerous Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum and Bassekou Kouyaté as well as Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Little George Sueref on harmonica and Radio Tarifa’s Fain Dueñas on percussion. The songs, mainly in Songhai and Peul, come from the north of Mali making it a fitting final statement. Ali died from bone cancer in 2006 and Savane was released later that same year.

In Mali, Ali was accorded a posthumous Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mali (the country’s highest honour) and a state funeral attended by the country’s senior politicians and music stars as well as thousands of ordinary people. All this for a musician who considered himself first and foremost a farmer. A statue now stands near his house in Bamako and his son Vieux Farka Touré continues to sing and play Malian guitar around the world.

BIOGRAPHY
1939 – 2006

 Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré was a giant of African music. He was the first to attract international attention to the music of Mali as the African roots of the blues. He released eight albums on World Circuit, won three Grammy awards and became a musical ambassador for both Mali and the African continent.

Ali was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau on the banks of the Niger in the north west of the country. He was his mother’s tenth son and the first to survive infancy. While Ali was still an infant his father died while serving in the French army, and the family moved south along the river to Niafunké, the village he called home for the rest of his life. 

Ali was attracted to the power of music from an early age. In Mali, music is traditionally played by hereditary musical families, but Ali came from a noble background and his family disapproved. But he was fascinated by the ghimbala ceremonies for the water spirits, or genii, that inhabit the river. He would listen in awe as musicians sang and played the preferred instruments of the spirits: njerkle (single string guitar), njarka (single string fiddle) and ngoni (four string lute). Aged twelve he fashioned his first instrument, a njerkle guitar.

Ali was recognised for his gift with the spirits, but his Islamic beliefs kept him from getting seriously involved. However, he always travelled with his njarka violin as well as recordings of spirit music which he listened to whenever possible. Ali came from the Songhai (or Sonraï) ethnic group which is the majority population in Niafunké. He mastered several traditional instruments and made a point of singing in many local languages although most of his repertoire was in Songhai and Peul.

In 1956 Ali saw the National Ballet of Guinea featuring the great Malinké guitarist Fodéba Keita. ‘’That’s when I swore I would become a guitarist,” he said. Ali began to play using borrowed guitars and found it easy to translate his traditional technique to the Western instrument. After independence in 1960, 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 Niafunké district troupe which was successful in the biannual competitions held in throughout the 1960s. In 1968 (the year Modibo Keita was ousted in a coup by Moussa Traoré), Ali made his first trip outside Africa (with Keletigui Diabaté and Djelimady Tounkara) to represent Mali at an international festival in Sofia, Bulgaria. It was in Sofia that Ali bought his first guitar.

Also in 1968, a student friend in the capital Bamako played Ali records by African American musicians James Brown, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith and Albert King. But it was the guitar blues of John Lee Hooker that made the most impact. Ali was immediately struck by the thought that “this music had been taken from here”.    

Ali spent the Seventies working for Radio Mali as a sound engineer in Bamako. He brought his unique guitar style to the attention of the country via many radio broadcasts and sent recordings to the Son Afric record company in Paris. In a matter of months the first Ali Farka Touré album with Nassourou Sare on ngoni was released (one of the first commercial records of Malian music). A total of seven LPs were released with a selection of tracks later released by World Circuit as Radio Mali (1996). 

In 1986 two of the Son Afric albums started to generate interest amongst radio DJs in the UK including Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillett. “Whenever I played a track, the response confirmed we’d discovered something outstanding,” Kershaw remembers, “one of those African artists who could connect with listeners who previously did not think they were African music fans.” World Circuit tracked him down and he was invited for concerts in the UK in 1987. His first recording outside Africa, Ali Farka Touré (1987), was a great success for World Circuit with vocals, guitar and percussion all played by Ali.

This led to a series of international tours and seven further albums for the label: The River (1989); The Source (1991) with a small group of accompanying musicians, including Afel Bocoum; Talking Timbuktu (1993), the groundbreaking duo with Ry Cooder which won a Grammy and confirmed Ali’s status as an artist of international repute. 

Although internationally known as a musician, Ali regarded himself as a farmer. Despite his success, he became increasingly reluctant to leave his farm in Niafunké. World Circuit’s Nick Gold decided that the only way to make another record was to take the mountain to Mohammed and bring a studio to Niafunké. The recording was made in an abandoned agricultural school and Niafunké was released in 1999, extensively featuring the guitar playing of his protégé Afel Bocoum. Ali continued to work on the land and was elected mayor of Niafunké in 2004.

After years of turning down invitations, Ali gave his first major concert in Europe for five years at BOZAR in Brussels, which featured a guest appearance from Toumani Diabaté. This led to a final trio of albums partly recorded at the riverside Mandé Hotel in Bamako. In the Heart of the Moon (2005), a gorgeous duo album with kora player Toumani Diabaté, won a Grammy. It was the first time the two musicians, over a generation apart, had worked together and Ali delved into the Mandé traditions of southern Mali. The repertoire dates from the 1950s and ‘60s, the time when Ali was inspired to take up the electric guitar by Fodéba Keita (sadly the Guinean musician had been executed on Sekou Touré’s orders in 1969). The sessions for the follow-up were recorded in London in 2005. Ali was already ill and often in pain. “It was hard for him to make this album,” says Toumani, “but he wanted to continue”. It also features repertoire from the north and south, including ‘Sina Mory’, the song he first heard Fodéba Keita play in 1956 coming full circle. As a finishing touch, Cuban bassist Cachaito López joined them on bass. Ali & Toumani wasn’t released till 2010.

The second of the Mandé albums was with Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra, and third was Ali’s final album and quite a send-off featuring numerous Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum and Bassekou Kouyaté as well as Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Little George Sueref on harmonica and Radio Tarifa’s Fain Dueñas on percussion. The songs, mainly in Songhai and Peul, come from the north of Mali making it a fitting final statement. Ali died from bone cancer in 2006 and Savane was released later that same year.

In Mali, Ali was accorded a posthumous Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mali (the country’s highest honour) and a state funeral attended by the country’s senior politicians and music stars as well as thousands of ordinary people. All this for a musician who considered himself first and foremost a farmer. A statue now stands near his house in Bamako and his son Vieux Farka Touré continues to sing and play Malian guitar around the world.

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