By Steven Wiens/ KUGS
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African guitarist Ali Farka Touré died peacefully last March, but his recorded music has never been more vital than his final album Savane. This new release joins Ali Farka’s Grammy award-winning 2005 collaboration with the kora master Toumani Diabaté, In The Heart of the Moon, as Touré’s last efforts to lay his talent to tape before bone cancer took his life.
These last sessions offer us a late imprint of Toure’s immense contribution to the West African music scene. Savane in particular demonstrates Touré’s deep affinity with many of the diverse traditions of Mali, the West African state that has for more than a millennium been the site of dramatic cultural convergence.
Unlike Toumani Diabaté, Touré was not born into the griot or jeli hereditary caste of musicians that have for many centuries kept oral history and honored the noble classes of the Mandé people. In fact, being of noble birth himself, the young Ali Farka was discouraged from pursuing music, which is traditionally seen as an inappropriate vocation for a noble. (Another famous Malian singer, Salif Keita, has faced the same cultural barrier during his long career.)
Despite this early disadvantage Touré’s career has flourished continually since the 1960s, and he always seemed to thrive by treading the liminal areas of cultural convergence in the Sahel.
“Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music,” Touré declared in one of his later interviews with Fly Magazine. “It is also the sharing of history, legend, biography of Africa.”
Touré makes good on these claims from the brittle, funky n’goni riff that introduces “Erdi,” Savane’s opening number. This first rhythm is a plain nod to the music of the Tuareg people, an ethnic minority that descends from North African Berbers rather than the various Sub-Saharan ethnic groups that are predominant in Mali. Despite the political tensions between these populations, Ali Farka has always extended a diplomatic hand to Tuareg musicians, offering them frequent praise and often insisting that American blues music evolved directly from Tuareg music.
“Erdi” soon opens up gracefully into a majestic, bluesy melody with lyrics sung in the Fulani language, Peul, rather than the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg. The strident rhythm recalls regal images of Ali Farka from the 2005 documentary A Visit to Ali Farka Touré. There we see Touré proudly touring the villages of his hometown, Niafunke, where he served as mayor in the last years of his life, carrying himself with the upright bearing that suits his noble birth. He always wielded his black guitar with that very same posture.
Savane captures this side of Touré better than any of his previous recordings, and this is a strength of the album’s understated production as much as it is due to excellent songs. Quieter songs also benefit from this character of the recording, such as the rich ambience of the subtle reggae-tinged title track.
Ali Farka Touré’s last studio album is a monument to the confidence, innovation and spontaneity of this irreplaceable African guitarist, who at home was often called “the lion of the desert.” Despite the great talents of his protégé, Afel Bocoum, Touré has no successor. Perhaps this is appropriate, as there was never any precedent to the layered image of West African culture one finds in the music of Ali Farka Touré -- rich in history, but profoundly modern.