I was instructed by Vieux Farka Toure’s manager to call Vieux Farka Toure sometime before 6pm EST. He would be in Bamako when I was scheduled to speak to him, the capital city he had lived in all his adult life since moving there from a small village in Mali, Niafunke, to become a professional musician. If he considered himself a Bamakoian, a poetic guitarist from a major metropolis, how was this reflected, if at all, in the music he made, I wondered.
More importantly, I wanted to learn about how Vieux viewed his music in relation to Mali’s turbulent recent history. Vieux is the son of Malian music legend Ali Farka Toure, with six superb albums to his credit, along with two spellbinding albums by the Toure-Rachel collective, a group that includes Israeli pianist and singer Idan Raichel. Vieux told me he considers two facts as central to understanding the social convictions in his approach to music, though taking care to make clear does not consider himself a political musician.
All of Vieux’s songs are as rich in guitar melodies as they are in singing. These sequences are often repeated over and over again, providing a similar tempo for his catalogue of songs. Other instruments are made to masterfully harmonized with these cyclecar melodies, which in part lends a phenomenal strength to his work. Vieux's songs are clear but grave. The fact that he combines a mix of acoustic and electric guitars lends his work a lushness and resonance that even his famous father can't claim. That said, these tracks aren’t nearly as danceable as his father's, either.
Vieux’s album The Secret is, thus far, his most profound creation. On it, through songs “Sokosondou,” “Ali,” and “Wonda Guay” we hear his familiar melodies though they have been slowed down, made more elegant and enlivening. These new tempos give us space to imagine new habitats and realms that encourage our love of life and need of experience.
When we spoke, Vieux told me that music is the most important media in Mali. Given that many Malians are illiterate, some find news and absorb social commentary through Malian songs, Vieux says. He told me that his music is rooted in the folklore of northern Mali, where it doesn't rain much and where radical Islamists lay siege to Timbuktu in 2012, destroying ancient shrines once prominent in Mali’s cultural life during the 15th and 16th centuries. Vieux mixes this folk tradition with more modern approaches. He laments the fact that many Malians focus on playing Mandingue music, and ignore the Peul, Dogon and Tuareg strains of Mali’s rich musical heritage.
According to Vieux, he makes his music and “voila”: you either like or you don’t. Discussing his album, Touristes, in which he collaborated with the American singer Julian Easterlin, I mentioned that the album represented a cosmopolitan turn in his oeuvre. Vieux shot back that his music had always been cosmopolitan—universal, in fact. The “voila” in any song makes all music universal, Vieux argues, and therefore open to anyone’s interpretation, though he takes pains to each composer has very specific things in mind when sculpting a new song.
In this respect, Vieux’s music is especially anti-racist and aimed at taking down harmful stereotypes. He sings songs that remind his countrymen that not all Tuaregs are bad, but reminds them that the individual is the most important entity to social living, not some venerated tribe or vaguely defined sense of a “nation.” His perspective is resolutely modern, and perhaps it is the reason why his music is so entrancing: his conception of what playing music means for Malian social life is has everything to do with addressing every listener’s human condition.
As it turned out, we did not speak much about Bamako. But he did have the following to say: Bamako is Mali’s anchor—the center of everything in the country. And still, he exists outside of Bamako’s music scene, refusing to play the city’s local bars and venues. He remains the person that came to Bamako as a young man from the small village of Niafunke. Beyond that, Vieux believes that things are slowly improving in Mali. There’s something encouraging in Vieux’s optimism, and this settled self-confidence that holds steadfast to the contention that a social life rooted in music can sustain a society and even push it forward.
Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic.