Ali Farka Touré – Savane – 2006
Albums released shortly after an artist’s death usually aren’t very good, but this posthumous release wasn’t cobbled together from incomplete recordings that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Africa’s king of the blues knew that he was dying and was determined to leave a fitting final testament, and no album could be more fitting than Savane. It is certainly his most traditional album, featuring the one-string njarka (fiddle) and the gritty pluckings of the ngoni (where the banjo has its routes), demonstrating that Touré has found a very comfortable place for blues in the traditional music of Mali.
Savane is as pure and deep an expression of the blues as you will ever hear – up there with the ethereal Robert Johnson and earthy-real Muddy Waters – but it’s also an album of strongly contrasting sounds and textures. When Andy Kershaw chanced upon his first, nameless record in a Parisian bargain bin, he believed he had found music’s rosetta stone. Never mind that this supposed cousin of blues music was hundreds of miles away from the slaver’s coast and located in the severely rural regions of the Peul and Songhai, this was undoubtedly the missing link of music.
As it turned out, Touré was very familiar with African-American music by the time he wrote and produced his first (and nearly Mali’s first) record in Paris, 1976. He was self-taught on a self-made guitar, and on hearing the music of Ray Charles, Otis Redding and John Lee Hooker in a 1960s trip to Bamako, he assumed John Lee was playing Malian music. It’s safe to assume it was this new blues influence combined with the melodies of his Songhai youth that lead to his unique and strangely hypnotic guitar playing. There’s no record of what he played in those years between making his first guitar and his enlightening trip to Bamako, but doubtless his characteristic power and conviction showed up early. The name Farka translates as mule, and as you’d expect is a byword for stubbornness. He never lived off his fame, tending to his farm until his last days. He was elected mayor of Niafunké in 2004 and remained so until his death in 2005, by which time he was an internationally renowned musician and an inspiration to half a continent. His son, similarly stubborn, ignored Ali’s warning that he should not become a musician, and recorded his debut in the same year as Savane. Vieux Farka Touré has captured his father’s formula (Ali also guests) , but it remains to be seen whether Vieux can ever top Savane. Few people could.
If all this wasn’t enough, there’s a tremendously dirty sax.
- Purves Grundy
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