(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Recording review - Vieux Farka Touré, Mon Pays (2013)

Following in his father's footsteps, reminding Malian's to remember their forefathers

At some point, every kid wants to grow up to be just like his dad someday. When your dad is Ali Farka Touré, known as Africa’s John Lee Hooker, then those are some bigger shoes to fill. The challenge was even harder after Ry Cooder introduced him to a wider American audience with their 1994 collaboration, Talking Timbuktu. Vieux Farka Touré spent a childhood steeped in his father’s music, which found a soulful, spiritual middle ground between Hooker’s ruminative blues and the bright tones and layered polyrhythms found throughout African music. By turns exotic, joyful and haunting, Ali Touré created beautiful music up until his untimely death in 2006.

Perhaps because his own recognition came late in life—he was nearly 50 when he achieved international acclaim — Ali Touré tried to discourage his son from becoming a musician. But Vieux Touré persevered at learning guitar and he eventually recorded his own music. By his third studio album, The Secret (2011), he was already making his own crossover move, playing with Derek Trucks, Dave Matthews and jazz great John Scofield. By contrast, Mon Pays marks a return to his father’s earlier acoustic sound. This time, instead of popular Western collaborators, he’s largely working with other African musicians, most notably kora player Sidiki Diabaté, son of the renowned Toumani Diabaté.

The new album is a response to the current strife in Mali. What began as a multi-faceted insurrection in 2012 has now splintered into chaos. In the regions they control, Islamic rebels in the North of the country have imposed strict laws that include bans on music. A Muslim himself, Touré has spoken out against this kind of cultural genocide, “Music for us is life…Without music, we are robbed of our identity.” So Mon Pays (“My Country”) is an assertion of that identity and a reminder to his fellow Malians about their rich heritage. Despite this somber inspiration, Touré’s songs are uplifting, with a sense of optimism.

Touré evokes his father’s spirit on songs like the meditative “Yer Gando” and the moody “Safare”. This latter track has a more direct connection as a cover of one of his father’s songs, but Touré’s guitar work is spot on. The tune opens with a fluid melodic line that blends DNA from Delta blues guitar with a keening West African kora. The group drops back to a droning blues sound to support the chanted chorus. Touré’s voice is a little rougher than his father’s, but the song serves as a loving tribute.

More than just Touré’s guitar, the songs on Mon Pays showcase the versatility of the kora. The upper register of this harp-like instrument offers delicate chiming tones that have a distinctly Asian character. On the jazzy “Doni Doni”, the timbre is like a harpsichord, but the riffs are more reminiscent of a shamisen. “Future”, on the other hand, begins with a tentative koto sound then balances the kora and guitar into an amalgam of folk traditions: Malian, Japanese and American blues. As a response to the troubles in Mali, this sweetly simple instrumental offers a hopeful vision of peaceful cooperation.

The album closes on a soulful note with “Ay Bakoy”. The song is built on a piano melody by Israeli keyboardist Idan Raichel. The two men met several years ago, but just released an album together last year, The Tel Aviv Session. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they each bring an open-minded musical approach that thrives on collaboration. “Ay Bakoy” is a fine example of how well they mesh. Raichel’s main theme sounds like a melancholic reworking of “House of the Rising Sun” and Touré’s vocals are appropriately doleful. But the song finds a core of strength and rises from its mournful base to bring a message of encouragement.

Touré speaks more to his own people through these songs than he does to the rest of the world, but his pain, hope and unbowed spirit shine through. Even without the language skills to understand his lyrics, listeners will appreciate the music and vocal expressiveness on Mon Pays and they’ll recognize his earnest vision of a reunited Mali.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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