Tuesday, March 07, 2006

FARMEROBIT: Ali Farka Toure

The Malian Culture Ministry has announced the death of Ali Farke Toure who - although he thought of himself as a farmer - was the nation's most widely-known musician.

Born in 1939 in Kanau on the banks of the Niger, although he was the tenth son to be born to his mother Ali was the only boy who survived his early years; it was this apparent stubborness which earned him his nickname of "farka", the donkey.

His father - a member of the French army - died while Ali was still young, prompting the family to relocate to Niafunke. The town was to be Toure's home for the rest of his life. Traditionally, Mali musicians had been drawn from castes of hereditary musicians, which meant that Toure - from a more noble background - should have been able to concentrate completely on his farming, but - according to musicologist Lucy Duran - Toure was considered a child of the river. These men and women are believed to be able to communicate with the spirits of the Ghimbala through spirit ceremonies, and it was during such ceremonies that Toure first discovered the power and attraction of music. In the face of family disapproval, Ali built an instument of his own (a jurukele, a type of single string guitar) and taught himself to play.

It wasn't just family pressure attempting to keep him from music; being a Muslim caused Toure to feel conflicted when patricipating in Ghimbala ceremonies - "because of Islam, l don't want to practice this type of thing too much...these spirits can be good to you or bad, so l just sing about them, but its our culture, we can't pass it by" he once explained.

It was seeing Fodeba Keita play guitar with the National Ballet of Guinea which really inspired Toure - "I felt I could do the same and that I could prove it."
He was proved right when he was able to translate his skill for African instruments to the guitar; a further boost came when the newly independent Mali established arts and cultural troupes throughout its six regions. The Niafunke district troop benefitted from Toure's presence.

Toure's first trip outside Africa came in 1968 to the not-especially-glittering venue of communist Bulgaria as part of as Malian delegation to an international arts festival. It was while in Sofia that Ali bought his first guitar. Upon his return to Mali he joined the National Radio Mali, both as an engineer and as a member of its orchestra.

A friend recommended he send some samples of his music to Paris' SonAfric records, which proved the start of a lucrative partnership. Seven albums were produced through what was almost a penfriend arrangement between company and performer.

Absorbing local influences, along with Zairean rumba and Cuban dance, and singing sings about love and peace as well as the spirit world through a rich mixture of imagery across a spread of languages (although mainly singing in the language Sonrhai and Peuhl, Toure also worked in Bozon, Bambara, Dogon, Zarma and Tamascheq), Toure developed into Mali's foremost cultural figure, but it would be 1987 before he took a solo journey outside Mali; this was the start of a period of international success. In that year, his self-titled album fitted the growing interest amongst Western audiences for what was often lumped together as "world" music and set him on a route to a wider audience.

The 1994 collaboration with Ry Cooder won Toure his first Grammy (he won a second at the last ceremony for In The Heart of the Moon); he also became mayor of his beloved Niafunke in 2004.

Ali Farke Toure was 67; he died from the cancer he had been battling for a while. It is believed he had completed a final album before his death.