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The Boston Phoenix Connections

Ali Farka Toure's cross-cultural blues

By Ted Drozdowski

JULY 31, 2000:  The blues came to America in chains, contained within the hearts of the enslaved people of Africa. Two hundred odd years later it went back, contained in 12-inch cardboard sleeves with names like John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Ray Charles emblazoned on them.

In the interim, much had happened in both Old World and New: governments had stabilized and toppled, electricity had become prevalent, slavery had been replaced by emancipation. And yet the essence of music has never changed. Its ability to speak directly to something within us, to touch our own humanity and make us better understand that of others, remains a constant. So it is that songs by Johnny Cash, Manu Dibango, Johann Sebastian Bach, U2, Stevie Wonder, the Sex Pistols, B.B. King, and Sleater-Kinney all have something profound to offer.

But when it comes to direct cultural connections, few are as obvious as those between the popular music of America and that of Africa. They're especially evident in the work of great old-style Mississippi bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside, and in many of the African artists who play variations on their countries' ancient folk legacies. Foremost among these African musicians is Mali's great guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure. Hearing Toure is like having hundreds of years of history peeled back -- even though his exposure to recordings by the likes of Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker led him to favor electric amplification some 40 years ago.

Toure's music is just another reminder of how the collision of European folk music and the sounds of Africa as they were funneled through the South produced a permanent shift in American popular music -- largely through the power of their traditional rhythms and call-and-response vocal cadences. The links of African influence can be followed easily from the height of the plantation era to the present, not only through historical writings and recordings, but through living practitioners. Consider the music of Mississippi's Othar Turner, who's still a vital bandleader at 92. His sound is an off-the-slave-boat strain of African polyrhythms played on European-style martial drums -- the only widely available drums manufactured in the 1800s -- and hand-carved reed fifes, which Othar makes before his performances by burning the center out of a piece of fresh-cut cane with a heated steel rod.

On a slightly less archaic tip are the current practitioners of traditional country blues, which is enjoying another of its periodic revivals. From New Orleans's Corey Harris to Cambridge's Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, the cadences of both the drums and the call-and-response of the work chants from the Southern fields echo in their plucked guitar strings, just as they did in those of Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and the style's other pioneers.

Further, we have African music to thank for the creation of the drum kit as we know it. Kit drums allow one musician to do the work of a clutch of hand-drummers, and they're the rhythmic base of jazz, blues, rock, country, soul, pop, funk, disco. Even electronica, albeit in virtual form. The vocal music of the church, once African-Americans got hold of it, was infused with the same call-and-response style and rhythms. Thus gospel music was born -- only to yield to the secular pressures applied by Ray Charles, James Brown, and others to become soul and R&B.

And so it goes. The connections are obvious for anyone willing to think about what he or she hears on the radio or even in the background of TV commercials.

For Toure, the current tour is yet another reversal of the retirement the 61-year-old announced in 1995. For a time it seemed he'd make good on that pledge. After winning a Grammy for his most famous recording, 1994's Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal) collaboration with American guitarist Ry Cooder, Toure retired to Niafunké and began using his fortune to battle hunger and poverty there. He used money from touring and record sales to build a system of water pumps and irrigation tubing. He and his fellow villagers cultivated a large tract of the otherwise barren land around their home.

"Music is very important to me, but my profession is agriculture," he told Niafunké producer Nick Gold and engineer Jerry Boys (who also engineered the Buena Vista Social Club sessions). Nonetheless, he is now touring behind the CD, his fourth US release on Hannibal. As he does on Niafunké, Toure is likely to follow his impulses on stage -- using his entire ensemble, just a few of its members, or playing solo as his mood or the music dictates.

Like his pre-Talking Timbuktu albums The River (1990) and The Source (1992), Niafunké is more driving and bare-boned in its dozen songs. Toure's debt to American bluesman John Lee Hooker and the musical and griot storytelling tradition of his homeland -- especially the performances of the Guinean guitarist Ketita Fodeba, who inspired Toure to take up his instrument in 1956 -- resonate everywhere. It's in his speedy hammered notes and the stumbling mesmeric rhythms of the instrumental "ASCO," in the teeth-baring pulse and melismatic cries of his anthem "Ali's Here," and in the heady-but-spare melodies he plays on traditional African violin in "Jangali Famata."

In the latter two songs, you need just a passing familiarity with the recordings of the late bluesman Junior Kimbrough to hear the link between the cadences and vocal phrasings of North Africa and those of north Mississippi. It's even more apparent when Toure employs his drummers, who pick up his sliding, roiling guitar lines and repeat them in their rhythms just as Kimbrough's bassists and kit-drummers did before he died, in 1998.

In Toure's guitar one hears the same kind of rhythmic outpouring of notes that's in John Lee Hooker's solo performances, like the blood-chilling "Tupelo" on the live set Alone (Tomato). The only differences are in language and in the tunings Toure uses, which are more microtonal than the standard and open-key tunings of blues.

That distinctly African tonal sense can also be heard in Toure's voice, his lyrics dancing in slightly but constantly shifting pitches. And there's more of the dry pinch of desert heat than there is low-lying Delta humidity in the sound that comes from his throat. Unlike, say, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, whose singing comes from their bellies, Toure is a head singer. In the North and West African tradition, which is familiar from Muslim chants as well as from folk music, he uses the resonance of his sinus cavities to sculpt tones high and powerful enough to slice through any surrounding music.

Although Toure was influenced by American bluesman, he has a fix on his music's deepest sensibilities and on Africa's musical power. At the time of its release, he described Niafunké as a "more real, more authentic" album because "it was recorded in the place where the music belongs -- deep Mali. We were in the middle of the landscape that inspired the music and that in turn inspired myself and the musicians." And so the cycle of connections continues, even where the music began.


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