Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Vieux Farka Touré

A preview of Vieux Farka Touré's performances in Burlington and Montreal.
hen famed Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré died last March there was speculation as to who would fill this musical giant's shoes. Worry no more. Vieux Farka Touré, his 26-year-old son, appears the heir-apparent to his father's title as "King of Desert Blues."

Malian blues is not like the American variety. Here, the soulful music that Black Americans created toward the end of the 19th century has a specific structure based on 12 bars of music with generally a three-chord major key structure. American blues guitar styles come in a variety of types from finger-style players to flat-pickers, but their common ground is the beat. Some also tune their instrument to an open chord, such as G or A and frequently use a slide to create the unique crying sound the instrument can produce. The words, when authentic, are about hard work, hard living, love and sex and living with "the blues."

Ali Farka Touré's music was widely regarded as representing a point of intersection of traditional Malian music and its North American cousin, the blues. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese characterized Touré's tradition as constituting "the DNA of the blues." He was ranked number 76 on Rolling Stone's "The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time."

As the first African bluesman to achieve widespread popularity on his home continent, Touré was often known as "the African John Lee Hooker."

Vieux Farka Touré's blues, like that of his father, is based on a more lyrical guitar sound than the American variety. It forms a repetitive pattern with a pulsating bass line of just a few notes with percussion from instruments other than a full drum kit. Vieux's father was the premier stylist in this musical genre and traveled worldwide performing this unique music on an instrument, guitar, that is not native to the Sahara Desert.

Now we have his son to carry on the tradition. On his first self-named CD we find a mature guitarist whose sound on acoustic and electric guitars is both powerful and haunting. Vieux doesn't wail on guitar as Robert Cray or Eric Clapton might. Instead he plays very clean, distortion-free single note melodies avoiding crunch chords and electronic gadgetry.

Vieux's recording melds sounds from traditional Malian music with electric bass and also the Kora, or African harp. The songs are sung in a variety of dialects from this part of Africa and thus, for American ears, are both unintelligible and exotic.

Listening to this album, one is struck by the power of simple musical lines, simple guitar figures and chanted vocals. While American music wants to propel the listener to new spaces, Malian music wants the listener to stay put, transfixed in a single line of musical content, as if to fully digest the message.

If you are unfamiliar with this style of guitar playing and musical expression you have two chances to hear Vieux Farka Touré and his band. They'll be at Higher Ground in Burlington on Nov. 11 and in Montreal on Nov. 23 at Club Soda.

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