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Niafunke Man

Ali never enjoyed formal schooling (he can’t read or write). Instead his childhood was taken up by farming, followed by an apprenticeship as a tailor then later as a taxi driver, a car mechanic and a river ambulance. His first musical memories stem from his initiation into the world of voodoo, by his grandmother, a famous healer and priestess. Young Ali was fascinated by the instruments he heard at the spirit ceremonies (the djerkel, the one-stringed guitar; the ngoni, a four-stringed guitar; the njarka violin and peul bamboo flute), and soon started building his very own, mini version of the djerkel guitar (Ali presented the actual instrument as a gift to Ry Cooder in 1994 during his Talking Timbuktu recording sessions). Later, Ali translated the actual phrasing he perfected on his monochord, onto the guitar, a teenage occupation that eventually led to his unique yet universally acclaimed guitar style.

Within the span of a couple of years, Ali had mastered a vast repertoire of traditional songs which he had learned from the various masters he had encountered on his travels, as well as an impressive seven different Malian languages. Yet his love for the guitar did not manifest itself until 1956, when he was 17, after hearing the great Malinke guitarist Keita Fodeba perform in Bamako. “I met Fodeba, someday in 1956. He was sitting on a doorstep somewhere, playing the guitar and telling his friends about various legends. I wasn’t living far away, and I had my monochord with me. That day affected me very much. I told myself, ‘Keita Fodeba is a great guitarist and he is also a teacher, he helps people in their vocation. I haven’t been to school, but I know many legends and stories, and much of the history of Africa. Why can’t I become a guitarist as well and try to make my desire to share my knowledge with others come true?’.” At the time, Ali couldn’t afford a guitar of his own, and was thus forced to borrow them in exchange for small jobs whilst working as a taxi driver. He bought his first guitar years later, in Bulgaria, on April 21st 1968 during his first trip outside Africa, where he represented Mali at an international festival of the arts. It took him no more then four years, so he says, to tame his new instrument.

By the end of the 1960s, Ali had established a formidable reputation by pioneering the adaptation of Songhai, Peul and Tamasheq styles to the guitar. Additionally, he had managed to bring these various musics from Niafunke to a national audience, when he too played his part in the authenticity movement set in motion by president Modibo Keita during Mali’s post-independence. He had taken up the post of leader of the Niafunke District Troupe, a giant-sized orchestra numbering 117 people with whom he scooped several athletic prizes. To make sure the village won something, Ali also ran as an athlete for the honour of his village. “I did this so my village wouldn’t win zero. I’m very patriotic.”


Ali's last published interview. From fRoots 273, March 2006

 

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