It is virtually impossible to hear any album currently emerging from Mali outside the context of the country’s troubles and conflicts. Like Bassekou Kouyate’s outstanding Jama Ko album, Vieux Farka Touré’s Mon Pays had been planned before the conflicts began, but subsequently assumed a new perspective and meaning. It is far from coincidence that the title translates as ‘My Country’ – this is a proud and stoical album that celebrates Mali’s cultural and musical heritage in the face of the threat posed by the Islamists.
Vieux Farka Touré is perhaps still perceived as being in the shadow of his justly celebrated father (Ali Farka Touré), in spite of some substantial musical achievements of his own (not least the lovely Fondo album from 2009). Mon Pays presents a new way of looking at the family dynamic – as a shared, continuing lineage. This narrative both celebrating and reimagining the past is perhaps best served on Safare, Vieux’s loyal, passionate take on one of his father’s songs.
Though its emphasis on collaboration, Mon Pays also suggests that this family dynamic is a strong aspect of Mali’s musical success more generally. On a handful of tracks, Vieux works alongside kora player Sidiki Diabaté, another musician who has inherited a great deal from his revered father (Toumani Diabaté arguably remains the greatest exponent of that singular, fascinating and beautiful instrument). Two of these are duets with English titles (Future and Peace) that simply and directly sum up Vieux’s hopes for a better Mali. They are appropriately beautiful, the intricate way that guitar and kora thread around each other creating something of a spider’s web, at once delicate and uniquely strong. This celebrates not just the two musicians’ shared national heritage, but their shared personal heritage too, in that their fathers’ duets albums represent some of the most touching, beautiful music ever to have emerged from Mali.
Mon Pays mostly holds firm to the key characteristics of Mali’s traditional music. It is rhythmic and energetic music, but without ever rising much above a whisper in volume. The forward motion is often provided by persistently anticipated rhythms emphasising offbeats (this is perhaps most notable on the driving, restless Kele Magni). The use of the light, nimble calabash instead of drums helps craft a subtle, hypnotic sound that eschews the rock dynamics recently incorporated by the likes of Tinariwen or Tamikrest. This approach creates music that is somehow simultaneously vibrant and contemplative.
Harmonically, this music never quite seems to adopt a clear blues form, instead preferring a mesmerising stasis, but Vieux’s malleable guitar lines are full of bluesy lines and sounds. Vieux also has a strong grasp of melody and of ensemble interplay, which helps him to leave his personal imprint on this music. There’s the call and response that emboldens Yer Gando, or the loping, melancholy lines of Ay Bako (on which Israeli pianist Idan Raichel guests), the latter of which provides an appropriately thoughtful closing note for this excellent album.