Ali Farka Touré was a hard-working man:
A tailor, shoemaker, mason, farmer, river pilot, chauffeur, gold prospector and, in the last years of his life, mayor of his hometown, Niafunké – paying for electricity and proper roads out of his own pocket. ‘Farka is in fact a nickname, meaning ‘donkey’ that his parents gifted him with – obdurate, hardworking, tough, it fitted.
Oh and in his spare time he was a colossus of African music, possibly the best guitarist I have ever seen live* and an inspiration to all those brilliant African guitar bands that followed. Growing up immersed in music from that continent** I liked it a lot but AFT was the first artist that I really got, that I really followed as a fan.
One day I shall inherit priceless copies of his early LPs, but until then I have to make my own way in the world. But do not weep for me gentle reader I snagged his 1992 LP The Source. Not just The Source in fact, BUT The Source – Special Edition; the 2017 reissue on 180g vinyl, with an extra track and an excellent 10″ booklet full of interesting notes and great photographs. World Circuit, always a label of quality, pulled out all the stops for this release. All of which would mean nothing at all if the music wasn’t anything special, but trust me dear reader, The Source is just a sublime ride from start to finish.
First of all before I even mention the songs and the playing let me just say that Nick Gold and Ali Farka Touré’s production on The Source is incredible. I would go so far as to say it is one of the best sounding LPs in the 1537, the tone they capture is natural and warm, every instrument clean, clear and dynamic. This even goes for the two tracks with Taj Mahal recorded in the dressing room of the Waterfront in Norwich.
But we didn’t come here to test your speaker system. Opening with ‘Goye Kur’ a song against indolence and negativity playing The Source is something akin to relaxing into a warm bath for me. The nimble, minimal guitar line steers a path for the hills and the skittering rhythms are a direct, delectable contrast with the gentle harmony of the group vocals (all four players sing).
One reason I love Sub-Saharan music like this is that fabulous link into the US blues that I bore on about every chance I get, the idea that the traditional music forms from this area were taken to America by slaves and then refracted back as the blues, fascinates me. A great writer once wrote, and I paraphrase here,
‘it’s like a slow tide washing from continent to continent each time taking some of the, umm, magic sands of music with it’
It gives modern Malian music (in particular) a fascinating quality, that juxtaposition of the familiar form and the, to Western ears, exoticism of the vocals and sometimes traditional instrumentation.
You want all that waffle made flesh? Taj Mahal and Rory McLeod guest on the low down bluesy ‘Roucky’, a sublimely bluesy love jam^ sung in the Sonhrai language. Everything about this is perfection, it sounds lived-in, dark and smoky and like a lot of my favourite blues this is delta music – although whether this one is situated on the river Niger or Mississippi, is the whole point. The inside gatefold picture makes the point.
Another highlight for me is ‘Dofana’, sung to great effect in French and the Peul language. This is currently no less than my favourite song about agricultural improvements – oh yes! It is as uplifting a song as the sentiments sung^*.
The subject matter of the songs is varied to say the least – hypocrisy; the stress of receiving guests for dinner (‘I Go Ka’ – which borrows the propulsive style of James Brown’s ‘There Was A Time’); Farka Touré’s first visit to Guinea (he went looking for gold and first discovered the electric guitar for himself, meaning we all struck gold); a warning about political corruption; love and adoration (the gentle, tender ‘Hawa Dolo’); the physical hardships of peasant farmers (‘Karaw’ – which is the Songhai word for feet that have been lacerated and calloused in mud) and the 19th century Touraeg conversion to Islam. So not very much like Whitesnake then^^.
Tonight my favourite track on The Source is ‘Mahini Me’, an insistent call-and-response blues with a touch of JJ Cale about it and Taj Mahal on second guitar.
I cannot praise this reissue highly enough, because as well as an excellent sounding press on heavy-duty vinyl, the excellent booklet*^, you also get a bonus track – ‘Takamba’, a reading of a traditional Songhoy dance. Farka Touré’s guitar is stalked by Hamma Sankare’s skittering calabash to great effect on this one.
All of which makes The Source a really well-rounded artistic high. Is it Farka Touré’s best LP? I’m not sure, both Niafunké and the Radio Mali compilation take some beating but it is close, I do prefer the earthy presence of this to the more spiritual sounds of his later LPs with Toumani Diabaté. Trust me though, your ears will thank you for treating them to this album:
*WOMAD festival, Bracknell, 1989 – saw him solo and playing a set with Taj Mahal; both times made a massive impression on 17-year-old me.
**as one did in Nantgaredig.
^one of the dressing room in Norwich tracks.
^*my Puel is embarrassingly rusty these days but the excellent booklet came to my rescue with a three-way translation.
^^which is precisely the kind of incisive, academic music criticism that keeps you all tuned to this station.
*^Afel Bocoum’s affectionate tale of joining the band when he was 13 and playing for wages of fish, rice and oil are worth the price alone.