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Ali Farka Touré
Ali Farka Toure.jpg
Background information
Birth name Ali Ibrahim Touré
Born (1939-10-31)31 October 1939
Timbuktu Region, Mali
Origin Niafunké, Mali
Died 6 March 2006(2006-03-06) (aged 66)
Bamako, Mali
Genres Blues
Malian Folk
Folk
Desert blues
Instruments Vocals, Guitar, Cabasa, Njarka
Labels World Circuit

Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré (31 October 1939 – 6 March 2006) was a Malian singer and multi-instrumentalist, and one of the African continent's most internationally renowned musicians. His music blends traditional Malian music and its derivative, African American blues and is considered a pioneer of African desert blues. Touré was ranked number 76 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" and number 37 on Spin magazine's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".

Some years after his death, a group of musicians playing in his style performed as the Ali Farka Touré Allstars (2012), and later the Ali Farka Touré Band (formed 2014).

Early life

Touré was born in 1939 in the village of Kanau, on the banks of the Niger River in Gourma-Rharous Cercle in the northwestern Malian region of Tombouctou. His family belonged to the Arma community and moved to the nearby village of Niafunké when he was still an infant. His father died serving in the French Army in 1940. He was the tenth son of his mother but the only one to survive past infancy. "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 had other children who have died", Touré was quoted as saying in a biography on his record label, World Circuit Records. His nickname, "Farka", chosen by his parents, means "donkey", an animal admired for its tenacity and stubbornness: "Let me make one thing clear. I'm the donkey that nobody climbs on!" Ethnically, he was part Songhai, part Fula.

Early musical influences

In Malian society, musical performance was the duty of a lower caste known as the "Griot". Since Touré was from the "Noble" caste, he was forbidden to play any musical instruments. He disregarded this and secretly built a monochord from a tin can and played it with his friends.

Having worked various jobs as a young adult including as a chauffeur and an ambulance boatman, it was a performance by the national ballet of Guinea in 1956 that would influence Touré to pursue a career in music. It was the guitar playing during this performance that made Ali determined to learn the instrument.

During the 1960s, Mali hosted and held national talent competitions aimed at bringing together the various diverse groups of people that lived within the newly independent nation such as the Bambara in the south, the nomadic Tuareg in the North and the Fula and Songhay in the Sahel. It was at these competitions that Touré soaked up the music of all these different cultures and learned to sing in seven languages.

Naturally Touré was a great success at these competitions and ended up heading to Bulgaria to represent Mali internationally. It was during this trip that he bought his first guitar, and it was also the first time that he heard the music that was being produced by African Americans in the USA during the 1960s, of which Touré instantly became a fan. He was particularly fond of the music of John Lee Hooker and has stated that, “The first time I heard John Lee Hooker, I heard his music but I said ‘I don’t understand this, where did they come up with this culture? This is something that belongs to us.”

Although Touré has been described as "The African Bluesman", he insists that his music is not blues, having stated that “To me blues is a type of soap powder, my music is older than the blues”.

Musical career

As the first African bluesman to achieve widespread popularity on his home continent, Touré was often known as "the African John Lee Hooker". Musically, the many superpositions of guitars and rhythms in his music were similar to John Lee Hooker's hypnotic blues style. He usually sang in one of several African languages, mostly Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamasheq or Bambara as on his breakthrough album, Ali Farka Touré, which established his reputation in the world music community.

Touré's first job in the music industry was as a sound engineer at Radio Mali in Bamako. This job allowed him the opportunity to use the radio station's recording studio, which at the time was the only recording studio in Mali. Touré sent tapes of his recordings to various record labels in France and eventually ended up releasing a series of albums simply titled ‘Ali Farka Touré’ in the late 70s and early 80s. in 1986 Touré captured the attention of the British market when tracks from one of his albums referred to as ‘the red album’ was played on British radio.

British DJ Andy Kershaw discovered ‘the red album’ whilst in Paris looking for albums that were difficult to find in the UK. He recalls how he purchased the album at random amongst a pile of others as the album cover had stood out to him. Upon listening to the album after he had returned home to North London he realised that he had found something special. Upon playing a few tracks on his segment on BBC Radio One it provoked an extraordinary reaction from his listeners.

It was this that grasped the attention of Anne Hunt of 'World Circuit Records'. In the mid-1980s, Hunt travelled to Mali to track down Ali Farka Touré, she eventually found him by broadcasting a message on Radio Mali seeking information about his whereabouts. World Circuit records brought him to Britain for the first time in 1987 and Touré went on to record seven records with them. The first few of these albums included some interesting collaborations such as with Seán Keane and Kevin Conneff of The Chieftains on The River in 1990 and Nitin Sawhney and the American blues player Taj Mahal on The Source in 1992. Although, his most high-profile collaboration of the early 90s was 1994's Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. Cooder later recalled how Touré didn't like recording the album in the Hollywood studio and described it as a place of ‘bad energy’ and The USA in general as a ‘spiritual car park’.

Touré's first North American concert was in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia. 1994's Talking Timbuktu, a collaboration with Ry Cooder, sold promisingly well in Western markets, but was followed by a hiatus from releases in America and Europe. He reappeared in 1999 with the release of Niafunké, a more traditional album focusing on African rhythms and beats. Touré was the mentor and uncle of popular Malian musician Afel Bocoum.

In 2002 Touré appeared with Black American blues and reggae performer Corey Harris, on an album called Mississippi to Mali (Rounder Records). Toure and Harris also appeared together in Martin Scorsese's 2003 documentary film Feel Like Going Home, which traced the roots of blues back to its genesis in West Africa. The film was narrated by Harris and features Ali's performances on guitar and njarka.

He was very supportive of director Manny Ansar's idea to move Festival au Désert to Timbuktu, after its first two years in the Kidal region of Mali. He said that he had always wanted to bring people home, but did not know how to do that, and that now that this festival had been organised, he would support it; he would be their "godfather". He started performing at the festival, bringing in a lot of his fans, more visitors, tourists, and journalists. He performed the closing concert every year from 2003 until 2006.

In September 2005, Touré released the album In the Heart of the Moon, a collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, for which he received a second Grammy award. His last album, Savane, was posthumously released in July 2006. It was received with wide acclaim by professionals and fans alike and has been nominated for a Grammy Award in the category "Best Contemporary World Music Album". The panel of experts from the World Music Chart Europe (WMCE), a chart voted by the leading World Music specialists around Europe, chose Savane as their Album of the Year 2006, with the album topping the chart for three consecutive months (September to November 2006). The album has also been listed as No. 1 in the influential Metacritic's "Best Albums of 2006" poll, and No. 5 in its all-time best reviewed albums. Ali Farka Touré has also been nominated for the BBC Radio 3 awards 2007.

In February 2018 Idrissa Soumaoro's song Bèrèbèrè, featuring Touré, was used in Black Panther.

Personal life

In 2004 Touré became mayor of Niafunké and spent his own money grading the roads, putting in sewer canals and fuelling a generator that provided the impoverished town with electricity.

Death and legacy

On 6 March 2006, the Ministry of Culture of Mali announced Touré's death at age 66 in Bamako from bone cancer, which he had been battling for some time. His record label, World Circuit, said that he had recorded several tracks with his son, Vieux Farka Touré, for Vieux's debut album, released in late 2006..

The Ali Farka Touré Foundation was created in his honour and to further his musical legacy. The foundation was represented by Ali Guindo at a 2017 show in New York City.

Musicians playing in his style played as the Ali Farka Touré Allstars at the last Festival au Désert in Timbuktu in 2012. In 2017, the Ali Farka Touré Band (which had formed in 2014) played as part of the "Caravane culturelle de la paix" in New York City, with a line-up led by lead vocalist Afel Bocoum, and including djembe player Souleymane Kane, guitar and vocalist Aly Magassa, guitar and vocalist Mamadou Kelly, and electric bass guitarist Oumar Diallo.

Discography

  • 1976 – Ali Touré Farka (Sonafric 50016-LP)
  • 1976 – Spécial « Biennale du Mali » (Sonafric 50020-LP)
  • 1978 – Biennale (Sonafric 50032-LP)
  • 1979 – Ali Touré Farka (Sonafric 50060-LP)
  • 1980 – Ali Touré dit Farka (Sonafric 50085-LP)
  • 1984 – Ali Farka Touré (Red) (Sonodisc/Esperance 5558)
  • 1988 – Ali Farka Touré (Green) (Sonodisc/Esperance 8448)
  • 1988 – Ali Farka Touré (World Circuit WCD007 / Mango 9826)
  • 1990 – African Blues (Shanachie 65002) (originally released as Ali Farka Touré (Green))
  • 1990 – The River (World Circuit WCD017 / Mango 9897)
  • 1992 – The Source (World Circuit WCD030 / Hannibal 1375) (with Taj Mahal)
  • 1994 – Talking Timbuktu (World Circuit WCD040 / Hannibal 1381) (with Ry Cooder)
  • 1995 – The Rough Guide to West African Music (World Music Network RGNET-1002) (contributing artist)
  • 1996 – Radio Mali (World Circuit WCD044 / Nonesuch 79569) (remastered selections of original albums from 1975 through 1980)
  • 1999 – Niafunké (World Circuit WCD054 / Hannibal 1443)
  • 2002 – Mississippi to Mali (Rounder B0000DJZA1)(with Corey Harris)
  • 2004 – Red&Green (World Circuit WCD070 / Nonesuch 79882) (remastered original albums from 1984 and 1988)
  • 2005 – In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit WCD072 / Nonesuch 79920) (with Toumani Diabaté)
  • 2006 – Savane (World Circuit WCD075 / Nonesuch 79965)
  • 2010 – Ali and Toumani – (World Circuit/Nonesuch Records) (with Toumani Diabaté)

Filmography

  • 2002 – Ali Farka Touré – Le miel n'est jamais bon dans une seule bouche – a documentary film by Marc Huraux
  • A Visit to Ali Farka Toure was released on DVD in the UK by Digital Classics DVD.
  • I'll Sing for You, 2001

Grammy Awards and nominations

Year Awarded Nominee/work Category Result Ref.
1994 Talking Timbuktu Best World Music Album Won
1999 Niafunké Best World Music Album Nominated
2005 In The Heart Of The Moon Best World Music Album Won
2006 Savane Best Contemporary World Music Album Nominated
2010 Ali and Toumani Best Traditional World Music Album Won

See also

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