Ali Farka Toure & Vieux Farka Toure

Chris May By

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One immediate response, when presented with these two albums—the first posthumous release by the extraordinary Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, and the first ever release by his son, Vieux Farka Toure—might be to see in the albums the passing of the "desert blues" flame from one generation to the next. In a sense, of course, that is indeed what Savane and Vieux Farka Toure represent, for the transmission of tradition from father to son is established practice amongst West African musicians—and Ali duly anoints his son's debut with two cameo appearances, one of which is amongst the album's highlights.

But such a perspective would be an oversimplification. While Vieux is demonstrably well versed in his father's music, what we are actually hearing is the emergence of a rather different aesthetic, one that seeks to include music from beyond Africa—notably reggae, rock and funk—at its core. Just how successful Vieux will be in this endeavour remains to be seen. He will need to harness not only invention but also strength of character, for many of his father's fans will be hoping for a more or less unbroken continuation of Ali's style, and the pressures on young Vieux to deliver will be considerable. One thinks of Ravi Coltrane, Femi Kuti and Jeff Buckley, for instance.

There is, however, already much to enjoy in Vieux's tentative first steps towards singularity. The majestic Savane, meanwhile, is indisputably his father's late-period masterpiece...

Ali Farka Toure
World Circuit/Nonesuch

Although enthusiastically embraced by world music fans since the late 1980s, first as a shape-shifting Delta blues guitarist—for the resonances with Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker were indeed spookily powerful—and later as a stylist in his own right, Ali's attitude towards Western acceptance was always ambivalent. On the very cusp of major international breakthrough, following the release of collaborations with Taj Mahal (The Source, World Circuit, 1993) and Ry Cooder (Talking Timbuktu, World Circuit, 1994), Toure seemed deliberately to shoot his chances of international stardom in the foot—by retiring from the recording studio for almost five years, before returning with the profoundly Mali-centric album Niafunke (World Circuit) in 1999. All he seemed to want from the West were sufficient funds to acquire some high-grade recording equipment and improve the quality of life in Niafunke, his home village. Once he had them, his career priority became managing their effective expenditure on the ground.

So to hail the intensely traditional Savane as a return to the roots, as some have done, is nonsensical, for Ali never left them. From his earliest albums, made in the mid 1970s and featuring just voice, acoustic guitar and ngoni (Malian lute), through the Mahal and Cooder projects and on to Savane, Toure played in exactly the same way. His adoption of electric guitar was to enable a sonically enriched reading of traditional ngoni music, not a conscious attempt at overseas breakthrough. Toure's music got deeper and better over the years, but it never fundamentally changed.

Savane is, however, his most perfectly realised celebration of Malian deep roots music. Sung almost exclusively in regional languages, at its core are Toure's rough diamond guitar and the throbbingly percussive ngonis of Mama Sissoko and Bassekou Kouyate. Everything else, and there's plenty of magic going on in the percussion section, is supporting cast, except perhaps Ali's voice. The rolling, tumbling riffs that the three players create together, and the solo variations they take turns contributing—Sissoko on bass ngoni, Kouyate on alto—are at the heart of practically every piece. Fanga Diawara's abrasive njarka violin adds to the atmosphere on three tracks.

Guest appearances from the London-based harmonica player Little George Sueref and tenor saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who are each briefly featured on three tunes, probably at the suggestion of producer Nick Gold, are enjoyable, but decorative features only. Ellis' playing is nicely sensitive to the setting, while Sueref tends to charge ahead in a generic, Little Walter-ish fashion.

Savane almost certainly won't be Ali Farka Toure's last album—other sessions are in the can for future release—but it may well prove to be his most enduring.

Vieux Farka Toure
Vieux Farka Toure
World Village

Despite Vieux Farka Toure's clear internationalist trajectory—traces of rock, funk and reggae run through his arranging and soloing—the most successful tracks on this impressive debut album are the most traditional sounding and the ones featuring older musicians. Given Vieux's relative inexperience, this is hardly surprising: he plays the guitar much like his father, but has still to acquire his old man's depth and presence. He's made a more than promising start though, and may do so yet.

Toure senior is featured on two tracks, the feisty "Tabara" and "Diallo," both of which are basically showcases for his electric guitar. Vieux's mentor, kora player Toumani Diabate, plays on another two, the more contemplative "Toure De Niafunke" and "Diabete." Ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate, from Savane, is heard on two tunes, including "Courage," which also features njarka (the liner notes identify the player as Hassey Sarre, possibly an alternative rendition of Savane's Dassy Sarre).

"Diallo" could almost be an outtake from Savane, though it's taken at a faster pace than anything on that album. It lasts over seven rocking minutes and the focal point throughout is Ali's electric guitar. "Diabate," at over nine minutes the longest track, is a kora/guitar showcase in which Vieux steps further centre stage than he presumes to do on either of the tracks featuring his father. These two tracks are the album's highlights.

The least successful track is the one in which Vieux makes his most overt embrace of music from outside Africa, the more or less straight reggae tune "Ana." There's some wild organ, a tasty horn arrangement (albeit one lifted almost wholesale from the London Soothsayers band's album Tangled Roots), but the Malian and ex-Jamaican strands coexist, rather than mesh with conviction. "Courage," featuring Toure's near contemporary, vocalist Issa Bamba, is a more successful fusion: the Frankish, poppy topline set inventively against Sarre's njarka and Kouyate's ngoni.

Despite its flaws, this is an assured and convincing debut, further distinguished by benchmark performances from two West African superstars. Will Vieux continue to move in his own globally inclusive direction, or follow the dynastic desert blues route? We'll have to wait for the next disc to find out.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Erdi; Yer Bounda Fara; Beto; Savane; Soya; Penda Yoro; Machengoidi; Ledi Coumbe; Hanana; Soko Thinka; Gambari Didi; Banga; N'Jarou.

Personnel: Ali Farka Toure: guitar, vocals, bass drum, bongos, percussion; Mama Sissoko, Dassy Sarre, Bassekou Kouyate: ngoni; Fanga Diawara: njarka; Little George Sueref: harmonica; Pee Wee Ellis: tenor saxophone; Yves Wernert, Etienne Mbappe, Sonny: bass; Massambou Wele Diallo: bolon; Fain Duenas: percussion; Alou Coulibaly: water calabash; Ali Magassa: guitar, backing vocals; Souleye Kane: calabash, backing vocals; Oumar Toure: congas, backing vocals; Hammer Sankare, Ali Magassa, Afel Bocoum, Brehima Toure, Ramata Diakite: backing vocals.

Vieux Farka Toure

Tracks: Sangare; Dounia; Tabara; Ana; Ma Hine Cocore; Toure De Niafunke; Diallo; Wosoubour; Courage; Diabate.

Personnel: Vieux Farka Toure: electric and acoustic guitar, vocals, calabash, percussion; Ali Farka Toure: electric guitar (3,7); Toumani Diabate: kora (6,10); Issa Sory Bamba: vocals (9); Bassekou Kouyate: ngoni; Seckou Toure: vocals; Mamadou Fofana: bass guitar, flute; Adama Diarra: djembe; Tim Keiper: drums, percussion; Hassey Sarre: njarka; Mahamadou Kone: tama; Princesse Prisca Benita: backing vocals; Alou Coulibaly: calabash; Eric Herman: guitar, bass guitar, vocals, glockenspiel, percussion; Dave Ahl: organ, clavinet, glockenspiel; Matt Hilgenberg: trumpet; Reinhardt Schuhmann: tenor saxophone; Joe M. F. Wilson: alto saxophone.

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