ali farka toure
I thought maybe I could put some music on and not be dominated by it while writing you. I thought something largely instrumental with vocals in another language and picked Ali Farka Toure of Mali in northern Africa. Timbuktu is in Mali, though Ali Farka Toure is from Niafunke in Mali, a ways up the Niger river from Timbuktu. Immediately it pulled me in and won't let go. Won't even let me turn it off. This Malian music he plays has a lilting rhythm that flows with a camel's walk. I can see somebody riding a camel to his rhythms. Evidently, a camel rider must relax into the flow of the camel's back. I see them in films, the rider's body flowing with the rocking boat of the camel's back. I'd guess it would be a good exercise for the rider's spine. It couldn't be as bad for the back as driving a truck. This Malian music has a relaxed lope about it suggesting reggae. I find when I want to hear reggae it is only Burning Spear I want to hear. I have other albums by different reggae artists. Bob Marley feels a little too pop for my taste. Burning Spear thinks about things and his songs concern what he thinks about. I saw him at Ziggy's in Winston-Salem, 03. I don't know if he ever saw the audience. His eyes were closed the entire show. He only looked at the floor walking onstage. His singing felt very much like the words in his songs. His songs are meditative, full of thought, a world of intense poverty, racism, white man pushing black man down, looking to Africa as home land, holy; a rise-up black man spirit. The people in his band played beautiful music with no demonstration of emotion, no jumping up and down. They played like they were jamming at somebody's house. Spear gave the appearance of indifference to everything but the music, jumping rope in the rhythms with his voice. He flowed in the music; he and the music were one, the singer and the song. His was one of the great concerts of my life, close to seeing Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse from about ten feet away in 1963 on their Straight No Chaser tour.
I laugh at myself thinking I could hear Ali Farka Toure pick acoustic-electric guitar with fingernails instead of picks in his style that is sensational in its subtle artistry. To an ear that passes over details, it is simple, repetitive rhythm that repeats past what an American ear conditioned by pop music can listen to comfortably. It gets into a Philip Glass repetition that seems to stay the same, though changes continually. The changing notes in the repeating rhythm make a more abstract melodic line than we who live in the world of American pop music have any access to by way of experience. Which is to say, Ali Farka Toure was fresh and brand new first time I heard him in the late 1980s. By then I'd been hearing Philip Glass for several years. Glass has studied musics of Africa and South America, Asia, primitive peoples, the music of the world. What I'm hearing now could be Glass with vocals in another language or nonsense syllables. The Malian music is a good walking music. Its rhythm is a walking lope, not like walking in the mall, but walking for a hundred miles, a long walk through a desert region with no clouds in the sky. Ali Farka Toure's music is as much from the soul of Malian culture as Doc Watson's music came from Appalachian culture in America. Watson is as accomplished a guitar picker as Ali Farka Toure, just in a different style of music and ways of playing it. Ali Farka Toure was drawn to John Lee Hooker's music. As I hear Hooker in my head, I can hear why. Possibly in the particular place John Lee Hooker grew up in southern Mississippi, the place could possibly have had some Malians in the mix of western African peoples. It seems like Hooker had this music in his earliest years. The Bo Diddley beat came from a certain kind of very simple church in south Mississippi where rhythm was kept hitting the floor with a stick that looks like a long, straight walking stick. It keeps the Bo Diddley beat for the singing, the rocknroll sound that went from Bo Diddley through the Velvet Undergound into punk in the mid 1970s and ever since.
Earlier in the week I saw a film that came from netflix, I'll Sing For You. It is a documentary in that it is non-scripted, camera visits different people and listens to them talk. The film featured a Malian musician named Kar Kar. The camera spent a period of time following him in his everyday life at home in what I took to be Timbuktu. If not there, then nearby. Kar Kar was a young Malian musician several years earlier. He recorded a few times. One of his songs about Mali was played on the radio every day for many years to come. Kar Kar went to Paris to get some paying work and live in a Malian hostel. He married the woman he adored. They had a good life then she died. Kar Kar returned to Mali with a broken heart in his later years. He played the same lilting rhythms Ali Farka Toure played, who appeared in the film a couple times accompanying Kar Kar on guitar. In one of the scenes they were walking while they played. Neither one looked at the strings, gaze straight ahead. I may have to see it again soon. The music inspired me to listen to my Malian music. Before putting on Ali Farka Toure, I listened to Afel Bocoum's album Alkibar. Both are from Niafunke, Mali, up the Niger river from Timbuktu. The music of these musicians and the people making music with them on instruments like a one-string violin, acoustic 6-string guitar and some other local instruments I can't name, is essentially what we call folk music. Ali Farka Toure made a good bit of money in North America and Europe from rising interest in African music. His music continues to sell well. His son is recording now. I've heard somewhere or read somewhere in recent past that he has given a large portion of his new wealth to the people of his region, making education available, improving health facilities, etc, making his world a better place. This adds something to his music I didn't hear before. Before, I heard a singer and guitar picker. Since learning what he's done with his wealth, I hear a remarkable human being. To an American it's odd to behold someone new-rich selfless with his money. Timbuktu is indeed a long ways from here.