Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Touré (October 31, 1939 in Timbuktu, Mali – March 6, 2006 in Bamako, Mali) was a Malian singer and guitarist, and one of the African continent’s most internationally renowned musicians. His music is widely regarded as representing a point of intersection of traditional Malian music and its North American cousin, the blues. The belief that the latter is in fact historically derived from the former is reflected in Martin Scorsese’s often quoted characterization of Touré’s tradition as constituting “the DNA of the blues”.
He was born in 1939 in the Muslim village of Kanau, near Gourma Rharous on the banks of the Niger River in northwestern Malian region of Tombouctou. He was the tenth son of his mother but the only one to survive past infancy. “The name I was given was Ali Ibrahim, but it’s a custom in Africa to give a child a strange nickname if you have had other children who have died,” Touré was quoted as saying in a biography on his Record Label, World Circuit Records. His nickname, “Farka”, chosen by his parents, means “donkey” – an animal admired for its tenacity and stubbornness. “Let me make one thing clear. I’m the donkey that nobody climbs on!” He was descended from the ancient military force known as the Arma, and was ethnically tied to the Songrai (Songhai) and Peul peoples of northern Mali.
Ali Farka Toure took up the guitar at the age of ten, but it wasn’t until about age 17 that he really got a handle on the instrument. In 1950 he began playing the gurkel, a single string African guitar that he chose because of its power to draw out the spirits. He also taught himself the njarka, a single string fiddle that is today a popular part of his performance. Then in 1956, Ali Farka Toure saw a performance by the great Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba in Bamako. He was so moved that he decided then and there to become a guitarist. Teaching himself, Alila Farka Toure adapted traditional songs using the techniques he had learned on the gurkel..
During a visit to Bamako in the late 1960’s, artists such as Ray Charles, Otis Redding and most importantly John Lee Hooker introduced Ali Farka Toure to African-American music. At first, he thought that Hooker was playing Malian music, but then realized that this music coming from America had deep African roots. Ali Farka Toure was also inspired by Hooker’s strength as a performer and began to incorporate elements into his own playing. During those years Ali Farka Toure composed, sang and performed with the famous Troupe 117, a group created by the Malian government after the country’s independence.
Ali Farka Toure trained as a sound engineer, a profession he practiced until 1980, when he had saved enough money to become a farmer, which he was until his death. His recording career began in France in 1976, but that phase of it ended poorly, as Toure was never properly compensated. For years he followed a successful career in West Africa adapting traditional songs and rhythms in ten languages from Mali’s enormous cultural wealth. This career was combined with a life rooted in his village. While touring widely in Africa and also occasionally in Europe and America, Toure preferred the security of his village life, family and friends, crops and livestock
In 1990, Toure abandoned music in order to tend to his farm, in his native Timbuktu. His producer managed to convince him otherwise and to return to his guitar. Two years later, he recorded the famous CD Talking Timbuktu with American guitarist Ry Cooder. The album won a Grammy award.
Despite the success with Talking Timbuktu, Ali Farka Toure wasn’t willing to leave his rice farm in Mali to record an album. Producer Nick Gold had to set up the equipment in an abandoned brick hall in Niafunke, Mali, using portable equipment and gasoline generators to compensate for the fact that Toure’s hometown has no power lines. The crew had to wait till Farka Toure was done with his chores and ready to play the guitar. Farka Toure said: “We were in the middle of the landscape which inspired the music and that in turn inspired myself and the musicians. . . . In the West, perhaps this music is just entertainment and I don’t expect people to understand.”
In 2004 Ali Farka Toure was appointed mayor of the Niafunke region of Mali. Ali has remained extremely loyal to his homeland and spends most of his time in the area, working on his farm. Ali’s key election promises to his constituents included tackling the malaria problem, cleaning up the region, and establishing a tree planting project.
In January of 2004, World Circuit’s Nick Gold was recording Ali Farka Toure’s first album in five years. The guitarist and his longtime producer from World Circuit invited Toumani Diabate to join Toure for one track: the traditional Malian song, “Kaira.” Without rehearsal, the duo improvised a version of the piece and quickly began recording another. The collaboration was so successful Nick Gold suggested they create an entire album together.
In the Heart of the Moon was the first of a trilogy of albums Nick Gold’s label recorded at the Hotel Mande. The record also includes subtle contributions from Ry Cooder on piano and guitar; Sekou Kante and Cachaíto López on bass; and Joachim Cooder and Olalekan Babalola on percussion. In the Heart of the Moon won a world music Grammy in 2005.
Ali Farka Toure died March 7, 2006, from bone cancer.
1976 – Ali Touré Farka (Sonafric 50016-LP)
1976 – Spécial « Biennale du Mali » (Sonafric 50020-LP)
1978 – Biennale (Sonafric 50032-LP)
1979 – Ali Touré Farka (Sonafric 50060-LP)
1980 – Ali Touré dit Farka (Sonafric 50085-LP)
1984 – Ali Farka Touré (Red) (Sonodisc/Esperance 5558)
1988 – Ali Farka Touré (Green) (Sonodisc/Esperance 8448)
1989 – Ali Farka Touré (World Circuit WCD007 / Mango 9826)
1990 – African Blues (Shanachie 65002)
1990 – The River (World Circuit WCD017 / Mango 9897)
1993 – The Source (World Circuit WCD030 / Hannibal 1375) with Taj Mahal
1994 – Talking Timbuktu (World Circuit WCD040 / Hannibal 1381) (with Ry Cooder)
1996 – Radio Mali (World Circuit WCD044 / Nonesuch 79569) (remastered selections of original albums from 1975 through 1980)
1999 – Niafunké (World Circuit WCD054 / Hannibal 1443)
2004 – Red&Green (World Circuit WCD070 / Nonesuch 79882) (remastered original albums from 1984 and 1988)
2005 – In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit WCD072 / Nonesuch 79920) (with Toumani Diabaté and Ry Cooder)
2006 – Savane (World Circuit WCD075 / Nonesuch 79965)
A Visit To Ali Farka Toure – a film by Marc Huraux