Ali Farka Toure
Finding Solo African Guitar Music
Search for African Guitar on the internet. Its not so easy to find something that is simply solo guitar, without voice. I was searching for music from Africa that was guitar, just guitar, alone. I even visited ILAM in Grahamstown, the immense database of African music field recordings made by Hugh and Andrew Tracy. There was some music there which I still have to get back to, but not quite what I was looking for at the time.
Then by chance I came across three videos of Vieux Farka Touré playing acoustic guitar all by himself and without singing. A revelation! I was familiar with his father’s music, Ali Farka. I didn’t realise for a while that I had heard Vieux play live a few years ago. He was playing calabash to accompany his father in a gig they did in a jazz club in Cape Town. It was a beautiful gig, all the more because Cape Town very rarely sees African artists like this.
Discovering Vieux Farka Touré’s version of Karaw
I immediately set about working out how Vieux did what he did on the guitar. This style of playing came very naturally to me. Like Gismonti it focused on a single rhythmic pulse in the thumb, with the melody cascading out front. The really interesting piece from this set of videos was Part One. I worked the whole thing out, but something was not quite right. There were point of intersection between the melody and the bass line in Vieux’s version which didn’t happen in my own. Slowly I realised that instead of keeping the beat on every two beats of the melody, the bass line was playing on every three beats – completely against the rhythm of the melody.
Once I made the change to this rhythm the effect was a rolling groove which was incredible to feel in the hands. I played this piece with the tabla player Udai Mazumdar. We had many an amusing hour discussing this rhythm in terms of Indian Rhythm and finding ways to translate it into a larger rhythmic cycle. My tendency, however, was to feel it in the shortest possible time frame, as an expression of one every-present rhythmic pulse. I am not sure we ever saw eye to eye on this one.
Eventually I found out that this piece was actually Vieux’s version of Ali’s song Karaw.
The Music of Ali Farka Touré
Soon after discovering these three pieces and playing nothing else for days, I was given a copy of the Red and Green albums by Ali Farka Touré, made before his entrance into the musical circuit of the west. Just one steel string guitar, two voices and a calabash accompaniment. Again, a revelation.
Cherie (Bakoye) and Ali Aoudy
Even though these pieces had voice, the guitar playing was complex enough to stand on its own. So I made a solo version of two of the tunes: Cherie and Ali Aoudy. I incorporated the vocal melody into my arrangement and found myself playing an older, somehow more stately version of Vieux’s “desert blues.”
It may have been then that I rediscovered Cinquante Six (recorded later with Toumani Diabaté as ’56), the solo guitar piece from Ali Farka Touré’s albumThe Source – piece he said he played while he was still “mad about the guitar.” This is Ali’s “kora piece,” a reworking of an old song from Guinea. This track took me into kora territory and, if I remember correctly, within a few days I had transcribed my first kora works by Toumani.
So the guitar of Ali Farka Touré and his son Vieux laid the path towards finding a unique way to play the kora repertoire on the guitar.