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Niafunke Man

Ali’s music and resulting worldwide recognition challenges prevailing cultural colonialism and the ghettoisation of third world artists as great stars, or exotic singers or fabulous guitar players, but never as singer/songwriters, as we would describe a Bob Dylan or Nick Drake. Although Ali’s success has come to epitomise many of the issues that arise from the world music industry, ironically, what matters most to him is the actual message which he conveys through the lyrics of his songs, something that is lost on most of his European audience. Try talking to him about blues scales, tuning, what he likes about the music of Otis Redding or whether he has ever listened to any Beethoven or Miles Davis, and you won’t get anything more than strange contradictions or a bunch of standard ‘Farkarisms’…

In a sense he teaches us what vocal music, world or otherwise, really should be about: the lyrics, the message, and the artist’s own story. By taking away the artist’s intentions, do we not also rob him of his integrity? Ali: “The music business can be very exploitative. But African music has now gained a solid place in the West, and Malian music in particular, is in very good health. There is, today, me, Salif Keita, Toumani, Oumou Sangare, Habib Koite, Lobi Troare, Rokia Traore… artists that hold on tightly to their culture. In Mali we are so rich in terms of musical culture. Hence a lot of famous musicians come from there. And they create a bond based on that culture. I am very proud of that reality. Today when you are a musicologist, you have to find the way that is particular to us, not just call us world music.”

From the outside, Ali’s success seems indisputable: he has won a Grammy, been nominated for another one (for In The Heart Of The Moon); he has managed to rebuild an entire village, become mayor, and is one of the few African musicians to enjoy international recognition without giving up his own musical identity. He is, and always has been, himself, yet he has been able to create a music that is understandable to the world. Or, as his producer Nick best describes it, “He has created a kind of desert blues that everyone is trying to imitate yet no one succeeds.”

However, I cannot help but feel that Ali’s ambitions were more noble than this. Ali seems disillusioned with the West for categorising his music in the context of a Western musical history, rarely an African one… and my interview with him was peppered with patriotic comments, which has left me wondering who really is the man behind the legend? Was his ambition to create a music that would be more then just entertainment, more than perhaps a possible antidote to colonialism, or was it a personal invitation to a world that still remains pretty unexplored or misunderstood by the West?

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


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