Sounds from the Sahel: Mali Song of the Week

Ali Farka Touré – Ai Du

Following on from a Song of the Week published earlier in the year, another Ali Farka Touré track has been granted the title for the next 7 days. As before this is in order to point to the relationship between American blues artist Corey Harris and the great Malian guitarist Touré.

Harris has recently released a book on Ali Farka Touré, which is certainly the most comprehensive and insightful text on his life since Ali passed away in 2006. Though their music Ali and Corey developed a strong respect for each other, but for Harris it was always Touré who seemed to have more to teach him. Speaking recently at an event at the School  of Oriental and African Studies in London, Harris provided excellent insights into the world of the blues. By sharing his stories he was  able to understand and thus explain more about his identity as an American musician from the deep south, and provide a very sophisticated insight into Mali’s music and society, and Ali’s place within it.

He explained how he first saw Toure in a performance with Ry Cooder in New Orleans whilst the pair were on their 1993/94 ‘Talking Timbuktu‘ tour (incidentally this is the album from which this week’s Song of the Week originates). Recalling the post-show press conference there was, understandably, a lot of interest in this African blues artist. Specifically people wanted to know where did he learn to play like that? How did he learn to play and what made him want to play the blues? People began to speculate over his influences too. Then Ali spoke, cutting across the room to set the record straight: “My music is older than the blues.”

That certainly got their attention.

Corey had already experienced West African music in person from his time living in Cameroon. It was not till 2002 that their paths would cross again. Corey explained, in his easy-going and instantly-likeable manner, how he realised that his music, the American blues, was “not so much a different branch of the same tree, but [Ali’s music] was closer to the root…I could play a segment of his music, but he could play all of mine”. Corey tried to impress Ali with some American blues classics. He played his favourite Henry Stuckey and Skip James upon which Ali – in his typically jolly, affable and childish way – responded by exclaiming “that’s one of our tunes!”

Placed between the very enjoyable stories of their friendship Corey also spoke deeply on slavery, past and present. He also spoke on identity and on the culture that both divides and connects Africa and America. His insights can only extend deeper in what promises to be an excellent book and a must read for anyone who loves Malian music.

Ali Farka Touré – Ai Du

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