By the mid-'90s, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré was expanding his signature acoustic African blues by changing his instrumental palette and collaborating with Western musicians like Ry Cooder (as on 1994's Talkin' Timbuktu). While Touré gained prominence during this period, many die-hard fans tout the artist's earliest work as his strongest. The double-disc set Red & Green brings together two albums originally released by the French label Sonodisc between the mid- and late '80s. The original vinyl versions were long out of print and difficult to find, until their issue here on World Circuit/Nonesuch. Both albums are entirely acoustic (Touré didn't introduce an electric guitar until 1991's The Source), with minimal accompaniment on calabash and ngoni (a traditional four-string guitar), which perfectly complements Touré's percussive guitar style and plaintive, keening vocals.
This self-titled debut is an amazing collection, spotlighting the Malian guitarist in his full solo acoustic glory for a beautiful, intimate music that recalls American blues.
This self-titled debut is an amazing collection, spotlighting the Malian guitarist in his full solo acoustic glory for a beautiful, intimate music that recalls American blues. The beauty of Ali Farka Toure lives in Toure's light, nimble touch on the strings as well as his flexible, reedy voice, which both perfectly complement his gentle, ambling rhythmic style.
Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate come across like the Odd Couple of Malian music. Toure is the tall, bespectacled veteran with the long fingers and a wide grin, looking very relaxed as he settles down to play a loping riff on his acoustic guitar. Diabate is younger, shorter, more intense, arranging himself in front of his kora, the ancient, multi-stringed west African harp. When you see him on video, you can’t quite believe just how quickly his fingers dance around all those strings.
Previously available as a 1996 import on the World Circuit label, this nearly 72-minute collection of recordings were originally made for radio broadcast between 1970 and 1978. As a single collection, this is the finest yet of Toure's slow-burning music, characterized by nimble, expressive guitar playing and strong, expressive singing. Lyrically, the songs are mostly devotionals, praising a loved one, Allah, and various government initiatives (including Radio Mali itself). Half the tunes feature Toure alone on guitar and vocals; elsewhere he is backed by the ngoni's beautiful rattle-buzz, a full choir, a smattering of percussion, and a violin player whose sliding, high-pitched notes echo the fiddle playing of Appalachia. Throughout, Toure's singing has a wider range than you'd expect (considering that he's known as the "African John Lee Hooker") and his bluesy guitar playing is always melodic, modal, and meditative. Toure repeats musical phrases over and over again, subtly changing them. But he never gets fancy for its own sake–his style (which adapts Sonrai, Peul, and Tamascheq techniques) sounds as natural as a babbling brook. Strands of sing-songy, seemingly simplistic melodies wrap around each other, coming together and unwinding like strands of RNA. This is some mind-blowing stuff.
Like his legendary father, Ali Farka Touré, Vieux is a guitarist who likes to collaborate. He has worked with the Israeli keyboard player Idan Raichel, and now comes an even more powerful partnership, with American singer Julia Easterlin. The opening Little Things starts with the familiar guitar lines of that Malian favourite Kaira, before Easterlin eases in to nudge the song towards western balladry. Elsewhere, this bravely original fusion switches from an African funk treatment of Fever Ray’s I’m Not Done to slow, thoughtful laments. The traditional In the Pines has been covered by everyone from Lead Belly to Nirvana, but is here reworked with chilling, whispered vocals and desert blues guitar, while the most startling track is a slow, African-edged treatment of Dylan’s Masters of War, which sounds like a pained meditation on the recent chaos in Mali.