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Niafunke Man

The musical zest and inspiration which Ali had momentarily lost towards the end of the ’80s and ’90s, when he became disillusioned with touring, seems to have returned. And now that he has settled in Niafunke, Ali is possessed more than ever before by a mission to delve and dig deeper into Mali’s musical heritage, and preserve a culture which he believes does not get enough attention within and outside the country. And his new sense of direction can be felt in his music, promises Nick: “The pull was very strong this time. That’s why the music sounded so good, ‘cause it sounds inspired, full of force.”

To journalists in the West, Ali claims his music is 100% Malian. Yet most of the music journalists that I spoke to about Ali were of the opinion that what makes Ali so successful is just the opposite: that his music is not typically traditional. One of the first observations Andy Kershaw made when he visited Ali in his home in Niafunke, was that, “Ali’s music doesn’t sound like anybody’s in the region”. Ali’s close friend, Congolese fusion visionary Ray Lema, reiterates Andy’s point when asked to explain what makes Ali stand out: “There is only one Ali Farka Toure. Ali developed a phrasing of the guitar which I have not heard in any bluesman or any African musician.” He adds: “He doesn’t play 100% traditional Malian music. When you have lived and toured abroad it is impossible to remain purely traditional. Some musicians are quite analytical. But Ali is an intuitive musician, he is not learned, he has not learnt from anybody. And that’s why he doesn’t like to be compared to bluesmen… although he was clearly influenced by them. And that’s why I like him so much.”

Try questioning Ali about his music and the blues element in it, and you’ll soon discover Ali himself does not seem very interested in exploring potential historical links between American delta blues and Songhai or Tamasheq blues... I asked Ray Lema why Ali seemed so disinterested in my question. It turned out I had the wrong end of the stick. Ray: “In Africa, the musician is not a musician in the Western sense. He brings a message. What he sings about is more important than the actual music. So what Ali sings about, the lyrics, that is much more important in his eyes than the actual phrasing or scales on his guitar, trust me.” When I speak to Charlie Gillett about Ali, he too warns me about superimposing Western expectations about music making onto world music artists. Charlie: “Ali is a very good guitarist – what more do we want? He is not the embodiment of Mali (or Timbuktu) anymore then Mark Knopfler is the embodiment of England (or Newcastle). They hear other people playing, and do their own variations. I think in the West we have a bad tendency to want more from our artists than they are capable of, or interested in being.”

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


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