Vieux Farka Touré’s father, legendary Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, was very much against his son pursuing a life in music. Despite his father’s initial concerns, Vieux was insistent, and eventually both his father and the other elders of their tribe conceded to his wishes.
Julia Easterlin is also from a musical family, but that’s where the similarities end between the backgrounds of these two collaborators. The majority of Easterlin’s childhood was spent in Augusta, Georgia and she has since moved to New York where she developed an experimental vocal looping technique that has become something of a calling card.
The two came together in a chance meeting in New York and made an instant musical connection that led them to make Touristes. On this record the two musicians are essentially tourists in each other’s musical worlds. However, you’d never know it: they meet each other’s respective cultural history and musical style with such generosity that their meeting creates a seamless, harmonious work.
The album is complied of predominantly original material, but it also includes three covers. Their version of Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War is perhaps most striking. Dylan’s version was delivered with an embittered and abrupt anger. The song takes a different form in Touré and Easterlin’s hands. The pace is more ponderous and sorrowful. Dylan spits the lyric “You ain’t worth the blood that runs through your veins” with distain; Easterlin delivers it with world weary despondency. The track loses none of its original potency for its transformation. Touré has lived through the past and present horrors that have befallen his native Mali and Easterlin the 9/11 terror attacks on America, which sees them transpose the track for their generation. Consequently, lines like “You’ve thrown the worst fear that can ever be hurled/Fear to bring children into the world” are imbued with a quiet and timely power.
They also tackle the Appalachian folk song In The Pines with a gentle pace, but it’s not quite as successful. Essentially, it’s difficult not to miss the raw power of both Leadbelly’s seminal recording or Kurt Cobain’s passionate performance of the song. The cover of Fever Ray’s I’m Not Done is another matter altogether. A song that might seem incongruous to the aforementioned two fits beautifully on the album and highlights the symbiosis of the two artists. The track is transfigured from its electro pop roots to a fusion of African inflected rhythms and looped vocals.
Of the original material Took My Brother Down is a highlight and also a companion piece to Masters Of War. Another song of conflict, the protagonist confronts their brother’s killer. Easterlin sings accusatory lines like “And if you call it self defence then you will bear no consequence/You put my brother in the ground and whose gonna defend him now”, while Touré wraps his extraordinarily dextrous guitar playing around her. Neither artist ever infringes on the other’s space: they seem to have a wonderful ability to both shine simultaneously without fighting for pole position.
The album ends with Apples And Champagne, which benefits from Touristes’ most beautiful melody as well as the album’s strongest components: Easterlin’s voice and Vieux’s guitar playing. It’s a simple and yet poignant way to sign off. It can’t be easy living in the shadow of a man with a reputation like Ali Farka Touré, and it could have been so easy for Touré to be overawed by it. But to his credit his music can proudly stand besides his father’s many accomplishments. It is good fortune for us all that the younger man defied his father’s wishes, for the musical landscape would be a great deal poorer without him.
And it is clear from this recording that relative newcomer Easterlin is a fresh and original talent likely to produce many a great recording in the future. Their chance meeting in 2014 was a fine bit of serendipity that matched a Malian guitarist with an American experimental singer, and the resulting record is a cross cultural musical triumph.