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Ali Farka Toure, 1939 - 2006/Photo: (c) Youri_Lenquette

Remembering Ali Farka Touré, one of Mali’s greatest musicians

When Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré passed away in his sleep on 7 March 2006, after a long illness, the national radio stations in his home country stopped their regular programmes and started playing his music all day long. By all means, it was a fitting tribute to one of Mali’s greatest musicians.

With his unconventional approach to traditional Malian music, Touré was the precursor to “Desert Blues” artists like Tinariwen and the like. But he himself never liked the label “blues” for his music. For him, American blues is simply a Western reflection of African music he had known all his life. While listening to John Lee Hooker’s recordings, he once exclaimed: “This is music they have taken away from us.”

Ali Touré started playing traditional instruments as early as ten, but soon his family forbade him to play music. Much later, in 1957, he discovered his interest in the guitar and started making a name for himself in the Malian music scene. While he worked for Radio Mali in the 1970’s, that station also broadcast musical performances by him. And thus began his real career.

That was a time when he also toured around Europe where, in Paris, he finally recorded his first album in 1975. Eventually, seven LPs were produced between 1975 and 1988 and gradually, he made a reputation for himself in the West.

And at least since his legendary co-operation with US-star Ry Cooder, which resulted in the Grammy award-winning album “Talking Timbuktu” (1985), Ali Farka Touré has achieved a firm position as one of the greatest World Music stars.

World Music fans were simply enthralled by Ali Touré’s bluesy voice with its parley high-lonesome vocals and by his fluid electric guitar lines. Moreover, his penchant for sagacious social comments certainly helped boost his international popularity.

But being always more of a musician than a performer and certainly resenting all those trappings of stardom, he finally stopped performing and even recording in order to lead a placid life as a farmer in his hometown Niafunké, with his wife and their eleven children, in 2000. (Scorsese’s documentary on blues music “Feel Like Going Home”, from 2003, provides a short but interesting insight into that life.)

And yet! Five years later, producer Nick Gold succeeded in persuading Touré to record, in collaboration with Toumani Diabaté, the album “In the Heart of the Moon”. It turned out to become another Grammy award winner in 2006, but alas, the last recognition of his talents during his life.

Though known internationally as a musician, Toure was also a development activist who devoted his time and resources to the improvement of the situation of the people of Niafunké, in the semi-desert region in northern Mali.

In 2004, he was elected mayor of the town and he is credited to have helped build roads and develop farms in the area.

Ali Farka Touré was a sharp-witted as well as a genial and jovial man. He led a happy and fulfilling life.

Frank Stenner


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