Ali Farka Toure
with Afel Bocoum
Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA • August 5, 2000
Lauressa Nelson and Maynard De La Paz
Ali Farka Toure, often dubbed “the African bluesman,” performed Saturday, August 5, at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse, one of only five US appearances in support of his most recent recording, Niafunké. Calling him an “African bluesman” is redundant; although the United States is generally credited as its birthplace, the blues is actually African music. Ali is an ambassador and living link to the country of its direct origin, his native Mali. While his music is clearly about everyday Malian life, it also echoes the greatness of Mali’s thirteenth-century Manding empire where the Jali caste (West Africa’s storytellers, poets and musicians) utilized music to unify social classes. Although not born a Jali, Ali was as a child inspired and directed to become a musician by “a message from the spirits.” Primarily a guitarist, Ali also plays other traditional Malian instruments.
Ali first gained international attention with his Grammy-winning album Talking Timbuktu, which he recorded with American musician Ry Cooder (most recently known for the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club). Soon after this album pushed him into the spotlight, Ali retreated for five years, dedicating himself to his family and community by farming the unyielding desert of his homeland. Finally, Ali is back with Niafunké, a work of pure Malian music untainted by Western influences. Ali’s dedication to Mali is so pure that this album was recorded in and entitled after Ali’s home village, giving it the ambiance of his surroundings and community.
Ali’s commitment to life in his homeland make tours and performances rare. Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse provided an intimate atmosphere for a very personal and devotional message, which Ali delivered with a charming light-heartedness and subtle charisma that captivated the diverse audience.
Starting the evening was fellow Malian Afel Bocoum, a protege of Ali who recently released his first solo album, Alkibar on Nonesuch Records/World Circuit. Bocoum’s entirely acoustic set included many of the sinuous and interwoven guitar lines reminiscent of his mentor Ali. In his songs “Mali Womoyo,” “Alasidi,” and “Buribalal,” he sang about subjects quite personal to him and his people in Mali: grain harvests, animal migrations, friendships, marriage, and the hardships of living in the desolation of his sub-Saharan homeland. More than simply an opening act, Bocoum represents a successor to the role that Ali has so painstakingly established – that of preserver of ancient Malian musical traditions.
No extravagant stage changes preceded Ali’s set, because most of Afel’s players were Ali’s, as well. The musicians included Samba Toure (backing vocals), Oumar Toure (congas and backing vocals), Oumar Diallo (bass), Soulymane Kane (djembe drum), Yoro Cisse (njurkle, a monochord instrument similar to a banjo), and Alhassane Sarre (njarka, a traditional West African bowed monochord). The sounds created by such simply constructed instruments are amazingly complex. For example, Hama Sankare’s beating of a simple calabash (gourd) with what resembled two brush-tipped chopsticks created intricate rhythms and a spectrum of sounds ranging from bass to snare.
As soon as Ali started his set, much of the audience left their seats to gather near the stage and dance. Ali played a balance of current and vintage material with an air of elation and confidence. Preceding the song “Amandrai,” Ali boldly yet diplomatically talked about the origins of the blues. He followed with “Soukora,” a lilting acoustic tune from his Talking Timbuktu. At times, Ali’s vocals brought to mind the melismatic style of Islam’s great muezzins – the mosque singers whose recantations of the Koran are broadcast throughout the streets to initiate the “call to prayer” five times per day. He closed his set with a traditional njarka piece, which moved the audience with its showcase of the rhythm section.
In an era of electronic beats and sampled rhythms, Ali renews faith in the power of live performance and acoustic music. The one undeniable feature of Ali’s music is its purity. Together with his protege, Afel Bocoum, their musical gifts will continue to bless the world.