I first heard Ali Farka Touré perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1994. At that time many North American audiences were beginning to learn about the man and his music, often through Ry Cooder, one of his early American collaborators. I remember crowds flocking to hear their set, the fans talking about some African guy who plays with Ry Cooder. Seeing the two perform onstage together, it was immediately obvious who was the teacher and who was the student. Cooder, thrilled to play with Ali Farka, backed him up dutifully, supporting each song with carefully placed licks and riffs tossed from his slide guitar like small bombs. In his long boubou, Ali Farka carried himself like the royalty that he was, striking to behold yet immensely approachable. With his easy smile and humble, gracious manner, he was at home in the world.
After his performance, he attended a question and answer session. American audiences had heard of this African bluesman and repeatedly asked him questions about his encounters with blues music and how he began to play. His responses often surprised, like when he answered that blues meant nothing to him, since it is only a color. Even though he was continually typecast as the Malian bluesman who learned guitar listening to John Lee Hooker, this was far from the truth. In fact, Ali Farka’s music sounded like blues because it came way before the blues, spirituals, slavery, and the European conquest of the Americas. He embodied the deep roots of centuries of African music; many couldn’t see the tree for the leaves, fixated as they were on the record company’s marketing of him as the African John Lee Hooker. When asked about his main profession, he would simply say that he was a farmer. To him, music seemed to be something one did anyway, in addition to living one’s life and going to work. Many recognized him as a great musician, but it was not his music that made him great, but rather his commitment to others, his town, his country, and his roots which made him great. Even his middle name, Farka, evokes the donkey that carries everyone’s burdens on his back. Ali was always ready to help his fellow man, or to make a stranger feel welcome in his desert home. This star did not shine in some far away galaxy, but right here among us, as one of us.
In 2001 we met again in his hometown of Niafunke, near Timbuktu in Northern Mali. This time I traveled with a film crew dispatched by director Martin Scorcese (who did not travel to Mali). We played music together under trees on a hot afternoon on the banks of the Niger. During our five days together I observed a man who was regarded as a king at home, but who moved about with humility, dignity, and respect for all, nobly born or not. A descendant of ancient Tukulor rulers of Northern Mali (originating in Morocco), Ali had a firm grasp of history from ancient days through the present, being able to recount his family’s origins in Fez centuries ago. He also loved Black American music. When I flew into Niafunke in August 2001, he picked me up in his Land Rover, blasting the music of Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Bobby Blue Bland as we bounced through the dusty streets of Niafunke, past goats, chickens and donkeys. He often told me, ‘Vous avez quitter chez toi pour arriver chez toia!’ (you have left home to come home). He believed that even though our cultures were separated by hundreds of years of slavery, and many had lost their language, culture, and religion, Black Americans still maintained the African spirit in the music that had sustained them through slavery to the present day. ‘There is no difference–we are from the same mothera?’ he would say. ‘There are no Black Americans, but there are Blacks in America.’ He recounted his impression the first time he heard the music of John Lee Hooker: ‘This is something that belongs to us–how did they come about this culture?a?’ He says he was surprised that African American music could sound so familiar, yet it had been so long since slavery had taken them away. The blues meant that African culture had survived even slavery, emerging like sweet fruit from long-dormant transplanted seeds.
In Niafunke, children flocked around him, locals looked to him for leadership, advice, employment and financial support. Indeed, while African music fans the world over hungered for his live shows, Ali Touréd infrequently, having been elected mayor of his hometown of Niafunke in 2004. He committed himself to community and commercial development, and even played shows in France to fund initiatives to develop the town. A reasonably well-off man, he nonetheless spoke of poverty (‘pauvrete’) as being the true path to happiness, meaning that one should not waste energy on material wants, but live simply. It is alright to have means, but use them wisely and help others. He exemplified this philosophy with his life. His music reflected this brilliantly. I still have film footage of Ali walking the grounds of his hotel with a bird gun, taking shots at the pigeons perched on the roof as we ate breakfast in the courtyard of his small hotel, Hotel Campement. I can still taste the desert dust in the air, dry from the seasonal Harmattan winds which sweep down from the Sahara across the whole of West Africa.
I returned to Niafunke in 2002 to record an album called Mississippi to Mali (Rounder). We set up our portable recording equipment inside one of his houses on the banks of the river. Since electricity was available only between 5pm and midnight, we chose to record between 5pm and 7pm, five nights in a row. I will never forget the changing hues of the desert sunset, the distant cries of birds flying across the Niger, the sounds of children playing, amid the backdrop of cows, goats and donkeys roaming the dusty roads of Niafunke. Listening to the recording, one can hear all of these sounds. They blend together seamlessly with the music as if it were one big orchestra where everyone had their part to play. I learned that you can’t isolate the music from everyday life. In fact, it is this same everyday life that gives us something to sing and play about. Life makes the music.
A devout and spiritual adherent of Islam, I remember Ali Farka kneeling to pray towards Mecca as the day ended and his vast herd of cattle marched in under the gaze of the red desert sunset. When we weren’t recording, we took our meals at the hotel, watching Malian TV in the courtyard under the desert stars. Another night we ate at his house. His wife prepared porcupine, riz caisse (broken rice) with red sauce and vegetables. For dessert we ate the freshest homemade yogurt that I have ever tasted. Ali talked about his youth and the resistance he faced when he began to take an interest in music. As a noble, it was deemed unbecoming for him to take up musical instruments, usually the domain of griots who accompanied nobles such as Ali and his family. For some time, his family became convinced that Ali was mentally unstable or possessed by demons. He endured traditional medicines and being bound by healers for a full year, all in an effort to make him stop wanting to play music. Eventually his elders saw that he would not stop his pursuit of music and they relented. The spirits were in him and they had to come out.
When I last saw Ali Farka Touré, I was touring Southern France with my six year old son and heard from a friend that he was nearby. Early the next morning, we all piled into a little Peugot and drove the hour and a half to a small medieval-era town to greet him. Soon after we arrived, Ali came through the door, all height and majesty, accompanied by a film crew and representatives from his record company. I noticed immediately that he looked thinner, even slightly gaunt. His dark skin looked ashen, grey, despite the ever-present warmth in his smile and his easy laughter. He told us that he had just emerged from a dire illness and had come very close to death. He even laughed as he recounted his battle, knowing that he had cheated death. A natural with children, Ali and my son Isaac hit it off immediately, playing, wrestling, and laughing, despite the language barrier between them. Soon Ali and I were outside, talking about our work together, and his plans for Niafunke. I showed him the stone pendant made by Mali’s Tomashek people that was given to me as a gift during one of my visits to Mali. Ali examined it and told me to keep it; the marks on the pendant gave me protection from harm. I still wear the stone today–.
Before we parted company, Ali invited me and my son to visit him in Mali. He kept telling me to leave Isaac with him and he would teach him all that he needed to know. Sadly, this was not to be. I was in Portugal nearly one year later, sharing the stage with a traditional, electric group from Mali, the Symmetric Orchestra. From them I learned of the precarious state of Ali’s health. A little while later I was in Conakry, Guinea, right next door to Mali. I knew Ali didn’t have long, but I lacked the funds to travel the long distance overland to see him. I later learned that he had already stopped receiving visitors and had traveled to the Dogon country to consult traditional healers to kill the cancer inside him. Renowned for their discovery of Sirius (the Dog Star) long before western astronomy, the Dogon held onto their ancient, magical ways and were one of the few groups to resist the conversion to Islam. When I heard the news, I wasn’t shocked by his passing, but I felt his absence immediately. A master is gone. Let us remember the lessons he taught us by keeping his music and wisdom close to our hearts. Ali Farka Touré’s example reminds us all that showed his greatness was much more than the virtuosity of his music. He was a king. His crown was his humanity. May his soul rest in peace.