Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mali Monday #s 10 and 11: Two by Touré

My music is about where I come from and our way of life and it is full of important messages for Africans. In the West perhaps this music is just entertainment and I don't expect people to understand. But I hope some might take the time to listen and learn. --Ali Farka Touré, liner notes to Niafunké

Partly to play catch-up with the Mali Mondays series, and partly to drive my reader(s) not yet persuaded of this week's musician's greatness either to the links below or to madness because I keep mentioning him all the time, here are selections from two of Ali Farka Touré's finest albums.

The marketing angle for Touré's music, at least in this country, has been to call it (and that of other bands from northern Mali, such as Tinariwen) "Desert Blues." It's one of those labels that is initially helpful; those of you familiar with the Howlin' Wolf/John Lee Hooker branch of American blues will quickly hear certain melodic similarities. However, the more one listens to Touré, the more one will hear the differences rather than the similarities. Both musics sprang from the same root but headed in different directions: a musical diaspora mirroring the human one. But having said that, I admit to taking Touré's music with me whenever I drive through the Mississippi delta region that gave birth to what we now call the Blues: something about its austere sound and lyrics borne of community and labor and struggle against oppression from all sides--natural and human in origin--seems to me a just-about-perfect soundtrack for that landscape.


As with any art form, some music we like "just because;" some we like because we recognize its greatness; and some we like because it rearranges something inside us such that the world looks a little different after we've heard it. For me, Niafunké falls into that third category. The first album by African musicians I ever bought was Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Shaka Zulu: a gorgeous album of the South African group's beautiful a capella singing, to be sure, but for many years it remained for me a pretty piece of musical exotica and nothing more. It didn't prompt me to seek out any more "African" music. But from the first time I heard the opening notes of Niafunké (the name of Touré's hometown, on the banks of the Niger at the edge of the Sahara), I was drawn, to the extent it was possible for a white guy from Texas, to hear this music not as exotica but on its own terms. Though you'll find Touré's music in the "World Music" or "International Music" bins at your local record emporium, it announces from the opening notes of the first track, "Ali's Here," that it comes from a place in the world, and not from some collaboration between some expatriates and European record producers. It's that sense of rootedness that makes Niafunké (and Savane, below) such compelling listening. These albums made me want to hear more . . . and, yes, post stuff about what I heard.

Here are four tracks, along with the accompanying liner notes (and lyrics, in some cases):

"Ali's Here" (3:17): "This is a message to my people that honey does not only taste good in one mouth. I'm here and I'm going to share it. Everything I have gained through my music goes back into the land for the people." [Touré identified himself as a farmer; at the time of recording Niafunké, he had not recorded in five years and had all but retired from performing. Even as he recorded this album, he also tended his fields. Touré also financed irrigation projects for his city and had even served as mayor there. How many more reasons does one need to admire this guy?]

"Mali Dje" (5:41): [Lyrics] "People of Mali,/Let us remember that God/Opened our mouths/To put two things into them;/either food to live/or sand to die./It is often said/that patience is a golden road./It is certainly true./But we must not fold our arms/and let nature take its course./No matter what it costs/Survival is all."

"Saukare" (2:51): This is a wedding song. [Lyrics] "We cannot stop laughing/We speak face to face/Secret nights/Rare nights, Saukare/I will offer you my heart/African night, Saukare/I will offer you a bull, my love/The secrets of the halls by the light/of the moon/Saukare, we will join our destinies/To live and die together."

"Howkouna" (5:59): I've noted before that this song has one of the most remarkable vocal lines I've ever heard, the way it works its way down the scale like water seeking its own path across a surface. [Lyric] "Worthy sons of Mali/Let us set to work/Only work can set men free/Men, women, young and old/Our country needs your stones/to build it/While there is still time/Fishermen, farmers,/Shopkeepers and students/Do you understand the priorities/of the hour?/Change of attitude comes first/And the rest will follow automatically."


Touré died from bone cancer in March of 2006; Savane was released in July of that same year. Whereas Niafunké was recorded in the town of the same name in a (very) makeshift studio (an abandoned mud building, with electricity supplied by a generator) and Touré's electric guitar on some tracks the only electric instrument (all the other instruments are traditional to Mali), Savane was recorded in Mali's capital, Bamako, and has a fuller sound, with electric bass on most tracks, larger choruses, and even, on a couple of tracks, harmonica and saxophone. Thus, there's a sense on this album of a pushing against Niafunké's boundaries, though without compromising that earlier album's sense of place.

"Erdi" (4:43): This song's lurching melody, almost as though it's stuck on some middle section in some longer melodic line, reminds me of Led Zeppelin's arrangement of "When the Levee Breaks." The song praises the first-born son of the family, for, "like in life, one can have only one life without children, or without a first child." [Spoken words] "First son who has never been matched/Thank you for what never ends, yes!"

"Yer Bounda Fara" (4:18): [from the liner notes] "A song about those who have been elected. They should work for those who have chosen them, and not for themselves. This song, in the Sonrai language, attempts to make a comparison between the Mali of yesterday--characterised by dictatorship and corruption--and the democratic Mali of today."

"Soya" (4:39): [Lyric] "Daughter of my heart/Future woman of the Peul people/Soya, I really love you/Future woman of the Arma (Sonrai)/Soya, I really love you/And with an honest love//Don't be angry, forgive me/Your beauty, like that of a she-devil,/Soya, I love you completely/But forgive me if I have offended you/You are an incarnation of the dove,/symbol of peace"

"Machengoidi" (3:35): Musically and lyrically, an extraordinary work-song--but one that summons the whole country to labor . . . and to account for itself. [Lyric] "What is your contribution?/What is your contribution to the development of your country?//(chorus) Who has worked?/What has he done?//I am a peasant, I have worked the earth/I have produced crops and cotton//(chorus) Who else? What have you done?//Me? I am a teacher/All my life, I have tried to share my knowledge.//(chorus) Who else? What have you done?//We are one/We are one and indivisible."


R. Sherman said...

Just wondering if you turned off the comments to the next post? Some of us are smart enough to leave birthday wishes elsewhere on your web journal -- even Mali Mondays.


John B. said...

Yeah. I turned them off, but I see you college-educated types are too wily for me. So, then.

And thank you.

Kári said...

My father recently sent me this link, as well as a track off SK's latest album, entitled "Laban" (the song, that is). Just wondering whether you knew it.

John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by and for the Youtube link. "Yamore" is on SK's penultimate album, Moffou, which is just gorgeous all the way around. I don't (yet) have his most recent album, but it's my understanding that it's as good, if not better, than Moffou: as with that earlier one, a back-to-his-roots album. I need to hunt down some links and give it a listen.