You can listen to the music of Mali’s Ali Farka Toure almost anywhere in the world you are reading this. Except in much of his home country.
If you’re looking, you can find Mali on the map in northwest Africa. But if you were there, you couldn’t find much music to listen to — at least not openly.
Mali is in conflict. That’s no different than much of Africa — Mugabe still rules Zimbabwe by force of fear, the Central African Republic is in rebellion, in Congo when someone mentions civil war, they wonder which one.
Most of us probably couldn’t name a half dozen countries in Africa — and South Africa is a gimmee — let alone know what’s going on in them. But if you’re a music lover in general, or the blues specifically, Mali cries out for our attention as if Toure, the king of the desert blues, were singing the words.
Northern Mali — including Timbuktu — has been overtaken by religious fanatics intent on instituting a Sharia Law so strictly interpreted they banned music, according to a BBC story posted on Toure’s Facebook page. If you’re wearing headphones in Mali, you’d better be hearing verses of the Koran.
From an October story in the Guardian: “Culture is our petrol,” said Toumani Diabaté, a Malian kora player. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”
None is better known than Toure, a devout Muslim according to Lucy Doran’s biography at worldcircuit.com. Toure won a Grammy with Ry Cooder and was celebrated in filmmaker Martin Scorsese’s Feel Like Going Home — Scorsese said Toure’s music contained “the DNA of the blues.” (When Toure first heard the blues, according to Doran, he thought “this music has been taken from here.” By here, he didn’t mean Mississippi.)
“. . . According to (Toure) Mali was first and foremost a library of the history of African music and perhaps also the heart of the musical world itself,” according to a story in sephisemagazine.com. “Ali’s love for his country was clear. He owed her a huge debt, as he researched and mastered the wealth of the country’s musical traditions.”
Toure traveled the world, but made his home and farmed the land in Niafunke, the village he came of age in. He was its mayor, and helped bring it electricity.
Toure was 66 when he died nearly seven years ago. Perhaps it’s a blessing he can’t see what’s being done to the culture he contributed to; perhaps it’s a greater loss he’s not there to help fight for it.
(“Farka,” means “donkey”, according to Doran’s biography. “Let me make one thing clear,” Toure said. “I’m the donkey that nobody climbs on!”)
Musicians enjoy no reprieve in northern Mali today. Singer Khaira Arby, according to the Washington Post and BBC, said militants threatened to cut out her tongue. She moved south and can’t go safely home, whether she feels like it or not.
One of the members of the band Tinariwen wasn’t home when militiamen came: “If you speak to him,” they told his sister, according to guardian.co.uk, ”tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”
Imagine a world without music, without concerts, without song at religious occasions or weddings or parties. That’s northern Mali today. “There’s no music up there any more,” said Toure’s son Vieux Farka Touré, according to the Guardian. “You can’t switch on a radio or a TV, even at home.”
Malian musician Rokia Traore, also according to the guardian.co.uk: “If I couldn’t go up on stage anymore, I would cease to exist. And without music, Mali will cease to exist.”
I’m not sure it will help, or whether it’s a useless gesture. But today’s a good day to listen to the late Ali Farka Toure. So is tomorrow. So is the day after. There may not be music in Mali. But there’s still Mali’s music.
Below is a link to Ai Bine, the first cut of Ali Farka Toure’s 1990 album The River. If you’re new to him, don’t expect to understand the words unless you know African dialects.
Sources: worldcircuit.com, the culturetrip.com, sephisemagazine.org, bbc.co.uk, washingtonpost.com, guardian.co.uk