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Ali Farka Toure brings Mali to the world

His second album, 'Fondo,' is out. He plays the Troubadour on Tuesday.

July 05, 2009|Andrew Gilbert

NOVATO, CALIF. — The lush, affluent hills of Marin County provide a stark counterpoint to the dry expanse of Mali, the landlocked West African nation as rich in music as it is poor in resources.

But guitarist-vocalist Vieux Farka Toure, the son of the late, revered Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure and a rising world music star in his own right, looks perfectly at home in the intimate confines of bass player Yossi Fine's Novato studio. He's remixing tracks from "Fondo" -- the follow-up to his critically acclaimed, self-titled 2007 debut -- for a new, untitled project.

Although the music on "Fondo," released in May through San Francisco's Six Degrees Records, mostly was written outside the country, the tunes feel even more deeply rooted in Mali's thick red soil than those on his first album. "When I'm home in Bamako, I don't really compose," said Toure, 28, who comes to L.A. to perform at the Troubadour on Tuesday. "On the road I compose all the time, because things are happening, and I'm inspired."

On his global wanderings he's found an ideal collaborator in bassist Fine, the Paris-born, Israel-raised producer who's worked with musicians such as Brian Eno, Jamaican dance hall star Anthony B and Indian electronica maestro Karsh Kale.

Fine was working with his Afro-groove ensemble, Ex-Centric Sound System, when he encountered Toure's music. Hired to remix a tune from Toure's first album, Fine added some propulsive bass to "Ma Hine Cocore," which ended up as the opening track on "Vieux Farka Toure Remixed: UFOs Over Bamako." But the pair really bonded when they were independently booked at the Roots & Blues Festival in Salmon Arm, Canada. Toure called for Fine to join him onstage.

"I've got a lot of history with artists like Lou Reed and David Bowie," Fine said. "I know if a guy's got it, and Vieux is one of those guys. His impact onstage is huge. After their show I told him, 'I've got to produce your album. I love what you do, and I understand what you're going for.' "

Toure was similarly impressed with Fine, who ended up co-producing "Fondo" with the guitarist.

Although "Fondo" features the same basic instrumentation as the first album -- with Toure on guitar and vocals, Tim Keiper on drums and Mamadou Sidibe on bass, and traditional instruments including the calabash, kora and n'goni in the mix -- the music is far more dense. Toure credits the increasing complexity of his sound, marked by polyrhythmic arrangements and searing countermelodies, to the seasoning he's gained on the road.

"When I made the first album, I had never done anything," Toure said, speaking in French through an interpreter. "I was there in my pond paddling around by myself, and, God willing, it came out and was successful, and that was amazing. I would consider 'Fondo' the warrior's album. I've been working really hard in conditions, physical and mental, that have surprised even myself."

In many ways, Toure has had to fight for musical expression from the beginning. Growing up in Niafunke, a village in northwestern Mali, Toure trained as a percussionist, but his father discouraged his musical ambition, seeking to protect him from the vicissitudes of a musician's life. But that only made Vieux focus on his music more intently, and he honed a jagged, bluesy guitar style.

Toure found an ally in Toumani Diabate, the world's foremost master of the 21-string, harp-like kora. A close friend and frequent collaborator with Ali Farka (their album "In the Heart of the Moon" won a Grammy for best traditional world music album), Diabate served as liaison between father and son during the years Vieux studied in secret.

"I was happy to hear that Vieux was playing guitar, but he didn't want his father to know it before," Diabate said in an interview last year. "So Ali didn't really know that Vieux had become a great musician, like what he's doing today . . . I told Ali Farka, 'Be happy. Let him do what he wants to do." In the end, Diabate engineered a father-son reconciliation that was captured on Toure's first album.

Since his father's death in 2006, Toure has picked up Ali Farka's mantle, bringing the music of northern Mali to the world while making explicit connections between West African and African American music. Last year, he toured with the African James Brown tribute project Still Black, Still Proud, alongside JB Horns legends Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley.

"Yes, I want to follow that path," Toure said.

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Vieux Farka Toure

Where: The Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood

When: Tuesday, 8 p.m.

Price: $20

Contact: (310) 276-1158; www.ticketmaster.com

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