Vieux Farka Touré brings the sounds of Mali to Baltimore
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
Jul 19, 2019 | 5:00 AM
When it came to playing the guitar, Vieux Farka Touré felt as if he didn’t have a choice.
“I think my life would have been easier if I played a different instrument,” said the Malian guitarist and singer. At least, it would have invited fewer comparisons to his father: Vieux is the son of Ali Farka Touré, the Grammy-winning guitarist who was among the first West African musicians to garner a global audience, enchanting listeners with his particular blend of Malian music and American blues.
But father and son share a story as well as an instrument. Both men were pressured by their families to join the military rather than pursue a less stable career in music. The younger Touré didn’t start playing the guitar until he was 20, and had to do so in secret.
“I think it was just in my destiny to play the guitar, as it was for my father,” said Touré.
Eventually, Ali Farka Touré gave his son his blessing, recording several tracks with him on what would become Vieux’s self-titled debut album before passing away from cancer in 2006.
Since then, the younger Touré has made a name for himself, stepping onto his own world stage in 2010, when he performed in the Opening Celebration of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
His music is distinct as well. Whereas Ali Farka Touré’s playing draws direct comparisons to the blues, specifically artists like John Lee Hooker, Vieux pulls readily from a broader swath of genres, including rock, funk and Latin music. The younger Touré grew up listening to all of these influences, noting artists like Michael Jackson and Phil Collins, “who were very popular in Mali in [his] youth.”
“Most of all, though, it is based in Malian traditional music,” said Touré. “I love the music of the hunters, which is very simple music of just kamel ngoni percussion and voice.” (The ngoni is a Malian stringed instrument with a dried animal skin stretched over the body; it is among several similar West African instruments from which the American banjo was developed.)
It’s no surprise that Malian music should blend well with genres of the Americas — and why Americans are a prime audience for it, as the blues, rock and jazz originated from African music brought here through the slave trade.
But what does Malian music sound like? In Touré’s hands, the guitar is as much a melodic instrument as it is an accompaniment to his singing. There’s the presence of a drone in many songs, providing a center around which improvised melodies can circle. And there is always a fascinating rhythm: Even if a song is framed by a straightforward meter, listeners can dig into the nuances within in, losing themselves in a trance. Or, they can dance it out — it’s hard to keep still when listening to Touré’s music, and it’s common for his shows to end in dance parties.
Like his music, Touré’s collaborators are multinational. At his upcoming show at the Creative Alliance, Touré will be joined by bassist Marshall Henry from New York and drummer Tosin Aribisala, who was born in Nigeria and now lives in Los Angeles.
Touré’s Baltimore show kicks off a larger American tour — his first in several years. While Touré said he plans on playing many songs from his latest album, “Samba,” released in 2017, the tour is more about playing music from throughout his career while he “gather[s] information to make his next album.”
“I look forward to returning and feeling the energy of the American public,” he said. “There is always a great ambiance in Baltimore.”
If you go:
Vieux Farka Touré performs at the Creative Alliance on July 24. General admission tickets are $25. For more information go to creativealliance.org
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.