Another visit last night to Liverpool’s excellent new music venue, The Music Room at the Philharmonic, to see a superb display of guitar virtuosity from Vieux Farka Toure. Son of Ali Farka Toure, his playing is still reminiscent at times of his father’s style, but there’s no doubt that he has now emerged as guitarist with a style that is uniquely his own, a jaw-dropping blend of psychedelic blues-rock à la Hendrix and the loping, rhythmic desert blues played by Saharan bands like Tinarwen or Tamikrest.

Laid-back, and with a huge smile lighting up his face, Toure doesn’t do the usual ‘guitar-hero’ poses. But this show, in a small but packed venue, suggested he is well on the way to becoming one. (A brief survey of YouTube videos suggests that he’s bigger in the States than here, enthralling festival and stadium crowds with his astonishing guitar playing. By the close of his show in the Music Room, just about everyone was on their feet, applauding and roaring their approval.

Vieux Farka Toure
Vieux Farka Toure: effortless artistry

Though it was Toure’s seemingly effortless artistry on guitar that held the audience transfixed, he was backed by two regular band mates, Jean-Alain Hohy on bass and Jean-Paul Melindji on drums who were his equal, Hohy anchoring the beat with fat bass notes as he plucked, slapped and stroked his instrument, while Melindji’s drumming powered things along with style and inventiveness.

Jean-Alain Hohy
Jean-Alain Hohy: : anchored the beat on bass

Vieux Farka was born in 1981 in Niafunké, a small town on the Niger river in central Mali, about 70 miles south-west of Timbuktu. It was there that his father’s family had settled when Ali was an infant, and both father and son have dedicated themselves to the preserving and promoting the culture of the place and improving the quality of life for its people.

In 1999, Ali Farka Toure dedicated his sixth album for the World Circuit label to his him town, explaining in a sleeve note:

The place where the music belongs – deep Mali. My music is about where I come from and our way of life and it is full of important messages for Africans. In the West perhaps this music is just entertainment and I don’t expect people to understand. But I hope some might take the time to listen and learn.

After his breakthrough with audiences in Europe and America (especially following his collaboration with Ry Cooder on the magical Talking Timbuktu album), Ali had spent his own money on irrigation and other farming improvements work around Niafunké, as well as  supporting a project to tackle the problem of malaria. In 2004 Ali became mayor of Niafunké and again spent his own money on road improvements, putting in a sewer network and fuelling a generator to provided the town with electricity. This work is highlighted in this video produced by World Circuit to promote the album Niafunké:

Vieux has continued to support his father’s anti-malaria project. But it was never Ali’s intention that he should follow in his own musical footsteps. Coming from a long family tradition of soldiering, he had defied his parents in becoming a musician. When Vieux was in his teens, he made it clear that he, too, intended to be a musician. His father disapproved, wanting Vieux to become a soldier, and Vieux was forced to study the guitar secretly in Bamako. But with help from family friend and kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, Vieux eventually convinced his father to give him his blessing to become a musician.

Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate in Niafunké
Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate in Niafunké

Now a decade on in his career, Vieux has four solo studio albums, one live album, and two collaborative albums with pianist Idan Raichel as The Touré-Raichel Collective to his name. Last night, copies of his latest CD, a collaboration with the New York-based singer Julia Easterlin, titled Touristes were on sale.

On his self-titled début album, released in 2007, Vieux paid homage to his father and it is the album on which he sounds most like his father. At the time Ali was dying from bone cancer, and Vieux recorded a couple of tracks with him, and these tracks were amongst his father’s last recordings. Ali died on 7 March 2006, aged 66.

In 2013, following the armed insurgency which resulted in Islamist forces gaining control of vast swathes of the north of the country, including the ancient cultural city of Timbuktu, Vieux produced a beautiful and critically acclaimed album, Mon Pays, devoted to reminding the world about the beauty and culture of his native Mali. Two songs stood out – ‘Future’ and ‘Peace’, on which Sidiki Diabate’s kora complemented Touré’s superb guitar work. The tracks represented a sort of generational passing of the torch, since as Sidiki’s father is Toumani, considered to be one of the greatest living kora masters, who was a close friend of Vieux’s father. In May 2014 we were privileged to see Toumani and Sidiki, father and son, play in Liverpool’s St Georges Hall Concert Room.

Vieux Farka Touré with pianist Idan Raichel
Vieux Farka Touré with pianist Idan Raichel

Two of Vieux’s most recent albums were the result of a chance meeting in a German airport, when he bumped into Israeli pianist Idan Raichel whom he’d never met before, and a spark was struck.  The result was that Vieux and Idan, along with Israeli bassist Yossi Fine and Malian calabash player Souleymane Kane, got together at a small studio in Tel Aviv in November 2010. The resulting acoustic, spontaneous and entirely improvised session led to the birth of the Touré-Raichel Collective. The group have since put out two excellent albums.

The session in the Music Room was a dream.  At times early on in the set, though, you could sense Vieux’s frustration at our English reserve (‘you’ll go to bed tonight, and wake up with your back aching’). But, in the end, he got just about everyone up on their feet, raising the heat and pulling muscles. By the end, it wasn’t just the three musicians leaving the stage who were hot and sweaty.

Vieux returned with drummer Jean-Paul Melindji for a single encore, paying tribute to his father by performing a favourite Ali Farka tune, ‘Diaraby’ (find it on the Ry Cooder/Ali Farka Toure collaboration, Talking Timbuktu, or the Toure-Raichel Collective album, Paris Session. Someone in the audience recorded this gem for posterity:

Later, he turned up in the Radio 3 studios where this was filmed:

BBC In Tune Sessions: Vieux Farka Touré – Ali

Vieux Farka Toure live in Ireland: Bullet the Blue Sky’

Vieux Farka Touré live at Wealthy Theatre (full concert)

See also

 

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