Anyone sceptical that the origins of the blues lie thousands of miles to the east of Mississippi in the heart of West Africa obviously hasn’t listened to the late Ali Farka Touré. The legendary Malian guitarist released almost 20 albums over a 35 year career and his hypnotically rhythmic interpretation of the traditional music of his homeland saw him dubbed “the African John Lee Hooker” as he became one of the first performers from the continent to achieve worldwide recognition.
A few decades later, and Ali’s son Vieux has taken over his father’s mantle as his country’s foremost musical voice, although there’s a lot more competition these days with the likes of Toumani Diabate and Amadou & Mariam being increasingly familiar names to western audiences. Because he’s younger, louder and more contemporary in style than Farka Touré senior was, Vieux is starting to get referred to as “the African Jimi Hendrix”, a glib soubriquet that falls well short of the mark.
He may have performed to over a billion TV viewers at the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup alongside Shakira and Alicia Keys, but Vieux is still a profoundly African musician at heart, even though his third album does see him reaching out more than ever before into the global mainstream, featuring collaborations with Allman Brothers Band guitarist Derek Trucks, jazz veteran John Scofield and Dave Matthews.
Overall however, The Secret should be seen as the next stage in the evolution of generations upon generations of traditional Malian music rather than a radical departure, with the contributions of western artists woven seamlessly into the record’s sonic template. So on Aigna, Trucks’s raga-inflected slide guitar interchanges mesmerically with Vieux’s shimmering chords and indigenous language chanting, while Matthews’s laid back yet powerful vocal fits perfectly onto the outstanding All The Same, perhaps the song here with the greatest crossover appeal. The squelchy organ and funky groove of Lakkal (Watch Out) works a little less well, but is nevertheless further evidence of Vieux and producer Eric Krasno’s determination to push forward the boundaries of their music without compromising its core elements.
The album’s title track also welcomes a distinguished guest – Ali Farka Touré himself. Taken from the last sessions he recorded before his death in 2006, the addition of Vieux’s second guitar, n’goni (a banjo-like instrument) and flute combine to create a wonderfully fluid, mellow sound that couldn’t come from anywhere but Bamako, a poignant juxtaposition of two great musicians from the same family that blends together effortlessly.
Vieux’s guitar playing style is more freeform and rock-influenced than his father’s, but in this respect he has far more in common with his neighbours to the north, the acclaimed Tuareg desert-blues collective Tinariwen, than with Hendrix or any other American or European guitarist. Like his fellow Malians, Vieux mines the influences of western music to subtly enrich his sound, but both acts specialise in the kind of euphoric, almost trance-like compositions that trace their roots to village campfires rather than cellar bar jams.
With its often complex textures and patterns, much of The Secret could represent a challenging listen for those unfamiliar with music of this genre. Yet it’s unquestionably a triumph; building impressively on Vieux Farka Touré’s promising work to date and making good on its creator’s promise to “dig deep into the secrets of my own history and my country’s culture in order to move the music forward”. Living up to his father’s lofty reputation is no mean feat, but this record should silence any doubts that Vieux is an important artist in his own right.