The resonance of African tribal heritage in Ali Farka Touré's guitar
Ali Farka Toure's The River LP
Ali Farka Touré was one of the first Malian songwriters to arrange African folk music for acoustic and electric guitar, gaining attention with international audience on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s. Cutting a new path in World music, his creativity had an enormous impact on future generations of African musicians such as Ag Alhabib (Tinariwen), Foday Musa Suso, and Oumou Sangaré.
Rolling Stone singled out Ali Farka Touré's particular guitar technique by including him in The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time while Martin Scorsese described Touré's music as constituting "the DNA of the blues" in his series The Blues, although Touré's folk harmonies have little similarities with the blues genre.
Since childhood, Ali Farka Touré has been deeply immersed in the traditional Malian music, even mastering several traditional instruments such as the single-stringed bow njarka. Along with transcribing the trance-like moods of African desert for the guitar, he also wrote songs in several languages including Songhay, Fulfulde, Tamasheq, and Bambara, with only occasionally using English.
In order to achieve a rather specific folk sound in his arrangements, Ali Farka Touré used various native string instruments, such as kora and ngoni, as well as African percussion instruments many of which he brilliantly played himself. When it came to his lyrics, Touré stated that his songs touched upon "education, work, love, and society".
Listen to Ali Farka Toure's Inchana Massina:
In attempts to side Ali Farka Touré with a specific genre—prominently blues—he is often compared to the iconic blues singer John Lee Hooker, but both the harmonic structure of the songs and vocal range of the two artists have little in common. On a closer examination, the melodic ornamentation coupled with a slightly overloaded electric guitar can be recognized as the only common feature between these two outstanding songwriters.
Regarding the blues roots in his work, Touré once said to the guitarist Ry Cooder with whom he collaborated on Talking Timbuktu:
"That’s not what this is. This is our African tribal heritage. Calling it blues is your problem."