CL Feature: Vieux Farka Toure, a Mali Sahara blues artist who plays State Theatre on Friday (with video)

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Vieux weighed in through the interpreter: “My father taught me that as artists we have the privilege and luxury of being out in the world making a living at what we do. We have the responsibility, the obligation, to bring our money home and help the less privileged. There’s a saying in Mali: If you eat alone, you shit alone.”

Vieux’s connection to his home runs deeper than continuing his father’s heritage, though. “For me, life in the north of Mali is a thousand times better [than elsewhere],” he said. “There’s a deeper degree of humanity. It doesn’t matter if it’s a village of 50 or a city of 50,000 — you know everyone. ‘How did you sleep?’ ‘You don’t have anything to eat? Come over and have rice with us.’ My village is a beautiful place.”

Despite his iconic status, Ali Farka Toure initially did not want his son to enter the music profession, suggesting the Malian military instead. When it was clear Vieux would not be swayed, the elder Toure allowed him to enroll in Mali’s National Arts Institute and recruited his good friend, the world-renowned kora player Toumani Diabaté, to mentor his son.

Vieux progressed rapidly and found his way into the orbit of fledgling American producer/bassist John Herman, who encouraged him to record. Vieux’s self-titled debut, released in 2006, featured mostly acoustic guitar and hewed rather faithfully to traditional Malian sounds. Last year, he released Fondo, a more mature effort that has more bite and showcases electric guitar. His reverb-soaked tone is instantly captivating; his phrasing is watery, with licks cascading into a trancey, orchestral sound. He routinely takes the spotlight on fleet-fingered solos that would likely have the most chops-happy Western players scratching their heads. This is not blues in the strictest sense. The songs are built on repeated melodies and riffs more so than chords. Vieux’s pliant tenor handles the chant-like melodies and a trap drummer lays down firm grooves, ranging from Afro-beat to rock to reggae. The entire package spurred noted producer Don Was to hail Vieux and company as “the best fucking rock ’n’ roll band in the world.”

Like a lot of guitarists, Vieux comes off as a bit cagey when he’s asked about how he gets his unique sound. “It’s basically all in the hands and fingers,” he said. “I use a jazz chorus and any pedal most guitarists would use.”

The almost eerie link between the music of Saharan Mali and American blues remains a mystery. Yes, African music was imported into America via the slave trade and, yes, early slave chants evolved into the blues. But how, these many generations later, does the music of two distant and disparate cultures maintain such a kinship? It’s unlikely that an American blues legend like Muddy Waters heard African music in the middle part of the 20th Century. Ali Farka Toure did listen to American blues, his son says, “but he didn’t use the stuff as the basis for what he played. He had developed his style before he heard American blues.”

So I guess, in the final analysis, some mysteries are better left unsolved. Best to just experience the magic of Sahara blues as purveyed by its newest master.

Vieux Farka Toure

w/Baye Kouyate and Friends, Fri., April 23, 8 p.m. doors, State Theatre, St. Petersburg, $16 in advance/$18 dos (all ages).

The video below features Vieux paying tribute to his father with a cover of Ali's song, "Ai Du."

And here's video of him performing "Walaidu" Live on KEXP from the Bumbershoot Music Lounge in 2009.

When African musicians break into the international scene, they usually move to a major cultural center, most often Paris, London or New York. But that does not appear to be the case with Vieux Farka Toure, who has been hailed as the latest African guitar hero. When I asked him in a recent interview if he has plans to continue residing in his native village on the fringes of the Sahara desert in Mali, he responded with an emphatic, “Of course, always.”

This was no ordinary phone interview. I queried Toure while he was in a car traveling between tour stops in Ithaca, N.Y. and Pittsburgh. After the 28-year-old artist struggled to answer my first question, he handed the phone to his manager, Deborah Cohen, who translated my English into French and vice versa.

Vieux Farka Toure is the son of international music legend Ali Farka Toure, who died from bone cancer in 2006. Ali was the prime exponent of what has become known as Sahara blues, a hypnotic, guitar-centric style with an uncanny kinship to rural American blues. Picking up the torch, Vieux has added modern elements to his father’s approach, and collaborated more frequently with Western players. The band for his current tour includes a Malian percussionist and rhythm guitarist as well as a drummer from New York. The guitarist’s current instrument of choice is a Godin electro-acoustic prototype built in Montreal.

Vieux’s loyalty to his home village of Niafanké, near the medieval city of Timbuktu, was passed down from Ali, who used his relative wealth to build an irrigation system for farmers in the community and gladly played the role of overall benefactor. “Ali Farka Toure was considered a great man in Mali,” said Baye Kouyate, a Malian percussionist who lives in Tampa and will open for Vieux Farka Toure at the State Theatre. “Everyone love Ali. I love him. He always bring happiness. His son carry on the legacy.”

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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