On 6 March Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s most well-known musician, died in his sleep at his home in Niafunke. After the Malian minister of culture made the announcement the country’s radio stations suspended normal programming to play Toure’s music.
The Western press defined Toure, the double grammy winner, as the desert bluesman or the African John Lee Hooker but he resisted this marketing classification. Toure stated that, although he loved blues, soul, and the likes of Otis Redding and Ray Charles, these US traditions did not influence him. Malians had been using a one chord plucked style of playing for centuries and took it to America as slaves. In 2003 Toure participated in the Martin Scorsese documentary Feel Like Going Home, retracing the history of blues from the banks of the river Niger to the Mississippi Delta.
Born in 1939, in Kanau not far from Timbuktu, once a centre of Islamic faith and commerce, Toure was the only survivor of ten boys born to his parents. They called him Ali Ibrahim. Then, following the African tradition, they gave him the nickname Farka (donkey), a testament to Toure’s stubbornness to live.
When Toure’s father died serving in the French army his family moved from Kanau to Niafunke, a larger village whose livelihood was farming, cattle herding and fishing. Toure, like most of his countrymen, practised a form of Islam with animistic influence. The Niger river was considered the most powerful force. When the spiritual and temporal collided with the changeable weather of the region, catastrophes occurred. People known as griots had the preserve of public performance and had to sing and dance to appease the spirits responsible for the catastrophes.
The other function of the griots was to serve every other traditional gathering – weddings, child naming ceremonies – in return for money. They also provided genealogical information, records of family events and moral boundary setting. Today most actors, presenters and singers are from the griot caste – the most famous in the West being Youssou N’dour. Although from a noble background, Toure wanted to become one of these griots.
In his early teens he made a n’jarka, a one-string fiddle, and taught himself to play. Like many other village dwellers Toure received no formal education. His first jobs included being a taxi driver, car mechanic and river ambulance pilot. These travelling occupations meant he got to meet and play with many small bands. In 1956, after seeing the great Guinean guitarist Fodobe Keita, he discovered the guitar.
In 1960 Mali gained independence from France and became the Republic of Mali. The new president Modibo Keita decided to promote artistic troupes representing the six regions of the country. Toure wrote songs and rehearsed with musicians and dancers. His Niafunke troupes won national competitions, but it still took ten years for Toure to buy his first guitar. By this time President Keita had been overthrown by Moussa Traore. In 1968 Toure took a job as a radio engineer at the National Radio Mali. During the 1970s SonAfric, a French record company, released six albums of Toure’s radio sessions – including Mali’s first commercial album.
But Toure always considered himself a farmer first and a musician second. He established a farm that he tended in between world tours. He abhorred materialism and felt duty-bound to alleviate poverty. In the late 1990s he was heavily involved with projects to better the agricultural situation in the Niafunke region. He personally financed a sewer canal, roads and electricity links – utilities that were largely unavailable to most Malians. During the 1999 political tensions he used his music as a weapon for peace, singing in all of the country’s languages that he had taught himself while in his 20s. On retirement from music, he became Niafunke’s mayor until his death. Even with bone cancer, he outlived most Malians by two decades. The best epitaph came from Ali Farka Toure himself, “My music is an education, a history, a legend, an autobiography – it tells a valuable story of something true.”
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