Album Reviews

Vieux Farka Touré – Les Racines

(World Circuit) UK release date: 10 June 2022

Malian guitar maestro goes back to his roots, showcasing gorgeous playing that bears exquisite fruit

Vieux Farka Touré - Les Racines In the film Best In Show, Parker Posey’s highly strung lawyer character is desperately trying to replace a dog toy shaped like a bee. A hapless pet shop worker tries to suggest a fish, a parrot or a bear in a bee costume, and faces a full on adult tantrum for explaining that, although we know those toys are not bees, “the dog will respond to the stripes”. Often when faced with an album like this, a Western Anglophone might feel like that dog: without a knowledge of the language(s) used and only an imperfect grasp of the musical traditions within which the performers are working, all we have left are responses to the colours and textures.

This is a little ironic, as Vieux Farka Touré – son of the late maestro Ali Farka Touré, who did more than anyone to bring the music of Mali to Europe – has named the album Les Racines, or “the roots”, coming closer to his father’s milieu than on previous solo albums, and has noted that, “In Mali many people are illiterate and music is the main way of transmitting information and knowledge. My father fought for peace and as artists we have an obligation to educate about the problems facing our country and to rally people and shepherd them towards reason.”  

But if we’re going to respond to context-hazy colours and textures, then these are some bloody good ones to start with. Interestingly, this is Vieux’s first album on World Circuit, the label that brought his father to the ears of the world, so perhaps it’s a return to roots familial as well as cultural. Roots can’t live without the soil, and Les Racines is certainly earthier than his last album, 2017’s Samba which was strong, but a bit too polished and four-square, with chunky rhythms seemingly aimed at a festival knees-up; you can certainly dance to some of Les Racines, but you’re at least as likely to sit in rapt concentration to the intricate licks and flourishes of these prime examples of songhai desert blues. Vieux has been called “The Hendrix of the Sahara”, but despite sharing with Jimi a naturalness in his phrasing, where solos and runs feel as instinctive as breathing, stylistically he owes more to BB King, alternating mellifluous thoughtfully placed notes with brief panting runs. You can hear this in Gabou Ni Tie, which also features a scrabbled chime tone that shares a sonic space to Roger McGuinn’s solo in The Byrds‘ Eight Miles High.

Although Touré’s playing is gorgeous throughout, this album is an ensemble piece, with special mention for Madou Sidiki Diabaté’s kora which adds extra waterfalls of notes, and Madou Traore’s breathy flute, which adds swirling dimensions behind the call and response of Ngala Kaourene, like a more agile and focussed krautrock flute noodler; the album even features guest guitar spots for Amadou Bagayoko, of Amadou & Mariam fame. The stand-out example of ensemble playing may well be L’Âme, a tribute to Touré’s father, which begins with some crabbed, jerky guitar scribbles that could have come from an early noughties post-rock act, and proceeds to build the most delicate skein of notes, including a juicy organ. The players keep to the barest bones of the structure, and there’s rarely fewer than three instruments exploring lines at any one time, yet it’s not a cacophony or a shapeless jam, there’s focus and rigour in the playing that might remind some people of vintage Ornette Coleman passages.

There are some strong vocal tracks on the album, particularly the fluent yet grizzled Lahidou which laments the existence of betrayal and false promise in the world, but it’s the instrumentals which really shine. The title track starts with a spaghetti western flourish before glittering cascades of notes begin to tumble, like the most refreshing spring shower in history. The chord progression is simple and melancholy, and could have come from an early R.E.M. track. The track is four minutes long, but frankly it could play all afternoon and you’d be left thinking it was too short. There will be parts of this album’s roots that those outside Mali can never fully comprehend, but regardless of your entry level, you’ll be certain that those roots are still strong and bearing exquisite fruit.

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