Desert blues: Afro-pop star makes his final statement with “Savane”

By Mark Guarino

The marketing can’t help itself. On the cover of “Savane” (World Circuit/Nonesuch), the final album by the late Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, there is a billing, “the king of the desert ‘blues’ singers” that Toure long insisted was misinformed. He isn’t singing the blues, the blues followed in his wake.   

“Oh it annoys me,” he told Fly, the global culture web magazine, earlier this year. “When people say ‘You are the Blues Man’ it annoys me because I know that what I do is traditional to this culture and it’s, above all, the roots of this culture. Every person only knows what he has learnt, every person evolves in the context that he grew up in and what he knows.”   

Western listeners will recognize American blues in the music of Mali, the West Africa country that is historically linked to the American South through the colonial slave trade and the culture that accompanied it across the ocean. Mali’s musical roots go back to the 13th century when the country was the multicultural center of Africa, where West African polyrhythms developed with Islamic vocals. Over centuries, traveling entertainers called griots spread the music, shaping the music into numerous permutations until it became recognizable by definitive traits: a trance-inducing melody, restless percussive elements, the piercing voice of the kora, a 21-string instrument similar to the lute, and wailing vocals. You hear these elements in the recordings of the starkest American blues artists — John Lee Hooker to R.L. Burnside — and similarly, the music is haunting and primal.   

Toure was born in 1939, he was believed to have been 67 when he died in March of this year. Along with vocalist Salif Keita, guitarist Habib Koite and Toumani Diabate, a kora player, he was a central figure in the Malian music boom of the 1990’s even though he started recording albums a decade earlier, developing a style that pushed Malian music into modern times by translating the fingerpicking style he learned on the ngoni, an antiquated Malian instrument similar to a lute, to electric guitar. The sound is enchanting, each note piercing. It was introduced to Western listeners mostly through “Talking Timbuktu” (World Circuit/Nonesuch), a Grammy-winning collaboration with Ry Cooder recorded in 1996.   

Another album followed in 1999 but Toure spent his remaining years farming and working as mayor of the desert town of Niafunke, which sits on the Niger River. He knew he was dying of bone cancer when he recorded “Savane” (translating to “Savannah”) but the music is not mournful. It is a virtuoso performance, a testament to the deep traditions that led to the development of the blues.   

At the base are ngoni players Basekou Kouyata and Mama Sissoko who provide a bed of sly, repetitive riffs that invite Toure to create the melody from his sharply picked notes played on electric guitar. The music involves no drums, just a haze of percussion with fiddle. Toure sings and talks both in French and the Malian dialects of Peul, Songoy and Sonrai, his voice often answered by a female chorus. Sax player Pee Wee Ellis (a James Brown veteran from the 1960’s and with Van Morrison a decade later) and harp blower Little George Sueref makes the music familiar, linking the ancient instruments with blues and funk.    

The improvised music is never played hurriedly, instead choosing to unfold and build and build steadily. On the title song, a midnight fever arises through the drench of repetition. The listener can hear traces of reggae, country blues and Celtic folk in these performances but none of these songs are as straightforward. The moods Toure and his acoustic ensemble create are contemplative but also blunt. The themes are as ethereal as love, sustenance, and grief and as practical as the value of work and the medical benefits of circumcision. In each, the jaunty rhythms never loosen their trance. This is an extraordinary album.

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