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Niafunke Man

It’s an impressive catalogue, partly because none of the albums needed much preparation or laborious post-production, explains Nick: “There is nothing cynical about what Ali does, Ali plays the same music he has always played and seems to be continuously discovering his own music. Ali is Ali wherever he is. He is not a product. To record an album usually doesn’t take more then three or four days.” During his time at Word Circuit, Nick has ended up introducing Ali to a host of musical giants such as Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, the latter with whom he shared a Grammy award for Talking Timbuktu, the record that served to confirm his status as an artist of international acclaim. Yet despite all his encounters, Ali is clear about who has been influencing whom: “Ry Cooder is a professional in his own field, me too, I am a professional in my culture. But the participation with Ry Cooder won’t change my music. I learned nothing from him.” Ali is many things, yet one quality he lacks is modesty. Or to quote one of Ali’s biggest fans, Andy Kershaw: “Modesty has never been his strong point.”

Yet Nick, who knows Ali best, sees things in a different light: “Ali has spoken to me about how people perceive him as being aloof and really proud etc. If anything, to me Ali is a real people’s man… someone who likes to just look at what he’s done with his career. He’s actually done a lot of work, he doesn’t sing in a trite way. He has really researched his country’s musical heritage. He has been taping stories, from legends he meets, for years. He’s always got his ears open. The way I see it, is that he is just very uncompromising. He has total belief in this gift he has been given.”

Ali is Songhai, as is the majority of the population in Niafunke, yet he sings in just about every language in the region: Peul, Bozo, Bambara, Dogon, Songhai, Zarma and Tamasheq, the language of the Touareg. Ali’s musical activities are not attached to a specific musical ancestry (he is not a griot), and this seems to make possible the telling of powerful truths and greater objectives. “I don’t do praise, that is what griots are for, but there will always be a place in my home for griots. When I am in front of a griot, I feel a bit weaker, because music is not my job. It’s a job I have adopted. The griot is the superior in that job.” In Ali’s eyes, art and griotism are two different concepts, and the fact that he is not a griot seems to have created a desire to shape a reality and a music that embraces racial difference. “Somebody who lives from deals left and right, can’t tell the truth. I am not dependent on anybody. I am urging all the different tribes to take their fate in their own hands.

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


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