Ali Farka Touré, father of “desert blues” music from the Sahara, died in March this year after a battle against cancer. The man quite literally from Timbuktu had just completed work on what would be his final solo album, Savane, which now gets a posthumous release.
Produced by World Circuit’s Nick Gold and featuring his protege Afel Bocoum, Farka Touré’s final record comprises 13 tracks sung in local Malian and Nigerese languages. It’s fair to say that music like this doesn’t make its way on to most UK radio stations or TV channels, so discovering it is a bittersweet experience – like finding a sparkling gem, perhaps, while knowing that the mine from which it came exists no longer.
Like the best records the world over, this is an album that works on several levels. For those, like me, with no understanding of the lyrics beyond the helpful sleeve notes, it is musically relaxing, spiritual and otherworldly. But its lyrics seek to draw comparisons between Mali’s past dictatorships and the country’s emerging democratic state today, drawing hope from the change-around Farka Touré has witnessed during his six decades.
Opener Erdi features Farka Touré speaking over a repeated ngoni refrain. The effect to an ear unfamiliar with the language uttered is reminiscent of snake charming, the shambling, deceptively complex rhythm lulling all who hear to torpor. Lyrically it highlights a celebratory contest of grazing land held annually by the Peul peoples.
As mayor of Niafunké, Farka Touré spent his earnings on improving the lot of the town’s inhabitants, building sewers and supplying a generator to provide for the town’s electricity needs. The album’s title track politely asks the West to consider preventing bombs being sent to Africa, replacing such exports with powered pumps over an intricate melange of guitar and ngoni that’s impossible to let fade into the background. It is one of several tracks in which Farka Touré provides his own gospel, that work is the way to success for his people – in Machengoidi there’s a round of job titles and declarations of lives well spent.
That desert blues influenced its American counterpart is well documented, but Farka Touré’s music brings back contemporary European and American blues inflections and in so doing fuses the modern world with the agrarian culture of rural, traditionalist Malian society, at once individualising his environment while providing it with global context. In music, such an endeavour is no mean feat – he represents his people to the world, and illustrates the world to his people. Utilising ngoni alongside electric guitar is an arrangement in point.
But there’s space too for light-hearted tales of young love (Soya) and old wives’ tales around fires (Penda Yoro), a tribute to a departed friend (Soko Yhinka) and even a traditional, ritualistic song performed on the day before male circumcisions (Hanana). Its inclusion here documents the dying out of traditional circumcisions in boyhood in a society now happier taking their baby boys to hygenic medical centres.
With such detail Farka Touré confirms his place as local historian, observing the passing of old ways and the arrival of their replacements, while the music, a duel between violin and bolon, evokes the clash of Islamic and Saharan culture. N’Jarou, the album’s closing track, pays tribute to a man who resisted the forces of colonialisation and the expansion of Islam, retaining the desert culture of his forefathers.
Farka Touré even evokes the geology of his country, with songs dedicated to lakes and land around Niafunké. Afel Bocoum, whose younger generation take on Malian life stretched to a collaboration with Damon Albarn, is charged with continuing Farka Touré’s teachings and commentary on life in the desert.
But while travelling through Mali Farka Touré’s or Bocoum’s music would be the obvious soundtrack to the trip, Savane as a whole is suggestive of so much more than cinematic evocation. At the very least it is a record that should entice its listeners to seek out Farka Touré’s earlier work, and to appreciate a genuine star whose international recognition in death may well surpass that afforded him during his life.