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In Tune With Tradition : Music: West Africa's Ali Farka Toure plays from 'The Source': 'My music is an education, a history, a legend, an autobiography.'

September 08, 1993|DON SNOWDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The African roots of the blues isn't an abstract concept for Ali Farka Toure.

The music of the West African guitarist-vocalist, whose album "The Source" currently tops Billboard's World Music chart, has been described as the missing link between Africa and such American blues artists as John Lee Hooker. Toure's Groupe Asko makes a direct connection with the blues in its Southern California debut as a special L.A. Festival guest on a Greek Theatre bill headlined by B.B. King and Buddy Guy on Thursday at 6 p.m.

"I've stayed in the tradition and they've evolved in exile," said Toure, 55, during an interview sandwiched around a studio taping for KCRW-FM's "Morning Becomes Eclectic." Wearing a flowing purple robe from his native Mali, Toure spoke in French with translation by Nick Gold, co-producer of "The Source" and owner of the London-based World Circuit label.

Continued Toure: "It's very important that these musicians go back to Africa to see where the music comes from because in that way they'll find the origins, the roots of their music. It will make their music much better."

Toure and Groupe Asko--featuring his younger brother Oumar on congas and Hamma Sankare on calabash--also perform Friday at McCabe's and Saturday at the San Diego Street Scene. His local stay includes a planned recording session for World Circuit with blues-rooted guitarists Ry Cooder, Clarence (Gatemouth) Brown and possibly Robert Jr. Lockwood.

"It just surrounds the planet like an atmosphere, this simple guitar music . . . a one-string idea like John Lee's music," said Cooder, who played with Toure during the KCRW taping--the segment is scheduled to air Thursday from 11:05 a.m. to noon.

"We just don't get it around very often so it's nice to come into contact with somebody who is a conduit for this very human thing."

Toure can sound like a musical dead ringer for Hooker but the "blues" side is only one facet of his music. Islamic influences are prominent, particularly in his singing and the lyrics. Toure sings material in nine different languages but doesn't mix the musical forms .

"My tradition is the natural music--if I sing a song in Sorhai, the rhythm and melody is Sorhai," he explained. "My music is an education, a history, a legend, an autobiography--it all tells a valuable story of something true.

"What I want to say is more important than the formation of the song, the melody or the rhythm. If I want to say something about work or the family, the song will come to me fully formed in that language already."

The gentle nature of Toure's music belies the forceful personality of the man. He has criticized such well-known expatriate Malian artists as vocalist Salif Keita for losing touch with their African roots.

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"They do it for the money," Toure charged. "I told Salif that face to face and he got very angry. Once you mix your music up so much, you're not anything anymore. They're not French and they're not African--they don't know what they are and their music has lost everything."

Ironically, Toure wouldn't be a musician if he had strictly followed tradition. Music is usually performed by a handful of griot families in Mali. Toure, who was born into a noble family, was expected to become an artisan and farmer.

But the "gift" of music in him was too strong and he taught himself to play the monocorde (one-string guitar) and the njarka (one-string violin). He was inspired and greatly influenced by seeing Guinean guitarist Ketita Fodeba perform on a six-stringed instrument, but Western instruments were almost impossible to find in mid-'50s Mali.

Toure had to wait until 1968 to get his first six-string acoustic guitar. The same day the musical troupe he had formed six years earlier arrived to perform in Bulgaria, their first trip outside of Mali, Toure bought his first Western guitar.

By that time, a friend had exposed Toure to records by Hooker, Ray Charles, Otis Redding and other American blues/soul artists. Toure's ensemble also successfully competed in government-sponsored youth festivals in Mali but he left the group in 1971 and embarked on a solo career.

Toure worked as an engineer for Radio Mali and released six self-recorded albums through the French Sonodisc label during the '70s. Shanachie re-issued one of those sessions here as the "African Blues" album three years ago.

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Toure picked up an electric guitar in 1984 and began recording for World Circuit after meeting Gold during a 1987 English tour. "The River" and "Ali Farka Toure" were released here on Island's Mango subsidiary. "The Source" is available in the United States on Hannibal/Rykodisc. But Toure's popularity is much greater in Africa, where he performs at outdoor events and 10,000-seat arenas.

Yet music isn't his full-time career. In his home village of Niafunke about 62 miles southwest of Timbuktu, he works as a chauffeur, mechanic and boatman as well as farming and raising cattle. And Toure indicated he may soon make good on his constant threats to retire.

"I prefer to stay at the place where I am today," said Toure. "I am tired. My family is big and aging. I have other things to do involving the tradition which I learned that I inherited.

"There's a new generation which has arrived and I will try to work with them and remain (home). There is a group and if I finish teaching the group, they will continue."

Additional translation by Lisa Mojsin.

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