Ali Farka Touré had a complex relationship with success outside Africa. It came to him relatively late in life – he was nearly 50 when the music he’d been recording for a small French label since the mid-70s started attracting attention in Europe and America – and he never seemed entirely comfortable with it. His guitar playing was compared with that of blues legends including Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker, but he described the blues as “a type of soap powder”. He would occasionally collaborate with western musicians, but told one of them, Ry Cooder, that America was “a place of bad energy” and a “spiritual car park”. He sold hundreds of thousands of albums and won Grammy awards, but was always wont to simply vanish back to Mali. He followed his Cooder collaboration, 1994’s Talking Timbuktu, by disappearing for five years and threatening to give up music altogether: he seemed more interested in farming in the village of Niafunké, his home town, where he eventually became mayor.
Perhaps a desire to step out of his father’s considerable shadow has informed the approach of Vieux Farka Touré. Certainly, he’s attempted to court a mainstream audience more assiduously than his dad ever did. His eponymous 2007 debut album was swiftly followed by a remix collection, which streamlined his sound for dancefloors. He has toured the US and Europe relentlessly. And he teams up with the kind of collaborators who push his music further afield, among them Israeli composer and pianist Idan Raichel, jazz guitarist John Scofield and experimental US vocalist Julia Easterlin. His collaborative album with the latter, Touristes, featured covers of both Bob Dylan’s Masters of War and Fever Ray’s I’m Not Done. His latest collaboration might be his most impressive to date. Hard on the heels of June’s sparse, straightforward homage to his father’s sound, Les Racines, comes Ali, which reinterprets some of his father’s best-known songs with Houston trio Khruangbin, a musical union that was apparently sealed in a London pub over fish and chips.
It’s an inspired choice. Since 2015, Khruangbin have specialised in a kind of musical fusion that recalls the late trumpeter Jon Hassell’s notion of fourth world music, which drew from so many global sources that it ended up evoking an alternative universe. Their sound has variously encompassed dub reggae, funk, Ethiopian jazz, Turkish psychedelia, south-east Asian pop and Latin American cumbia without being dominated by any of them: on 2020’s fabulous Mordechai, the result was hazily psychedelic, unplaceable and utterly beguiling.
They’re on similar form on Ali. For an album that was apparently recorded live in under a week, its mood is largely beatific and unhurried: if you were casting about for something to at least vaguely compare its sound to, you might settle on late-90s Air. Savanne is a song with a pretty sharp lyric – it bemoans the lot of the African diaspora working menial jobs for minimal pay, angrily protesting western intervention in African wars – but here the contrast between the words and the music is striking: they sound as if they’re emerging through a blissful haze, the vocals rendered distant with echo, far less clear than the flurries of guitar that punctuate them. On other occasions, they hit on something almost perfectly complementary: Diarabi’s tale of romantic woe (she’s married someone else after he failed to stump up a dowry) is rendered as an entirely gorgeous, soft-focus R&B ballad, gilded with melancholy backing vocals.
That said, you don’t need any understanding of the lyrics – or, indeed, knowledge of Ali Farka Touré’s back catalogue – to find yourself enraptured by the music here. Tongo Barra is built around a winding, insistent funk groove; on Mahine Me, Khruangbin unexpectedly alight on an inflection in Touré’s guitar playing and surround it with music that carries a distinct hint of zydeco; Ali Hala Abada carries a hushed potency. Alakarra, meanwhile, spends almost as much time very slowly fading in and very slowly fading out as it does at full volume, as if its slow-motion loveliness is passing you by.
It’s an album you can easily lose yourself in, which is presumably the point: Vieux Farka Touré apparently declined to tell his fellow musicians what the songs were called before recording them, wanting a “clean slate”. He got one: it’s often quite jolting to listen to his dad’s original versions after submerging yourself in Ali’s luscious soundworld. Or, rather, each potentiates the other. In Khruangbin’s hands, Lobbo sounds not a million miles from lush 70s soul along the lines of William DeVaughn’s Be Thankful for What You Got, relocated to west Africa. It’s beautiful, which only makes the 1990 original sound all the more sparse and haunting. A tribute that works entirely in its own right, while casting new light on the music that inspired it, Ali is a wonderful thing.
This week Alexis listened to:
Say She She – Prism
The fabulous title track of the NY trio’s debut album: honeyed harmony vocals, lo-fi electronic soul backing.