Paying Tribute to Ali Farka Touré

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From left, Vieux Farka Touré and Khruangbin’s Mark Speer, Laura Lee and DJ Johnson

(Photo: Jackie Lee Young)

Vieux Farka Touré is one of Mali’s most inventive and adventurous artists. The guitarist is the son of the late Ali Farka Touré, the man who introduced most of the world to the music of his native country, employing a blend of traditional Malian music, American blues and sounds from Northern Mali and the Southern Sahara. His eponymous debut record made him an icon. Later in his career, the elder Touré toured with his son Vieux accompanying him on percussion. As he grew older, the younger Touré decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and picked up the guitar.

Enthusiasm for world music has increased exponentially in the past few decades, allowing the Vieux Touré to experiment. His albums have included reggae and dub reggae effects, rock, funk, Latin and dance remixes.

His music slowly unwinds, layering up rhythms and overlapping melodies, driven by his impressive fingerpicking. He often includes a couple of his father’s songs during live shows, but had never devoted an entire album to his father’s legacy, until now. His latest effort, Ali, digs deep into his dad’s music. He reinvents treasures, familiar and obscure, from his father’s catalog, with the help of Khruangbin, the psychedelic jazz fusion trio from Houston, Texas.

Eric Herman, Touré’s manager, explained the genesis of the album. “The original germ of the idea came from a conversation between Vieux, Nick Gold [Ali Farka Touré’s British manager and head of World Circuit Records] and me about doing an album of Ali’s songs with a band from the U.S., Europe or the U.K., more of an indie or rock band, so they could totally reinvent these Ali songs and put them in a new context.” They started brainstorming on who they’d reach out to. Khruangbin was at the top of the list and struck everyone as a perfect fit. During the sessions with the band, Touré would choose a song of his father’s, play it, and experiment with the group. Then, they’d figure out the arrangements together.

They all connected in Houston, Khruangbin’s home town, and tracked the album in June of 2019. But the pandemic hit and derailed everything.

As the quarantine eased, Khruangbin did a session to complete overdubs and another session to mix and prepare for the album’s release.

Touré and the members of Khruangbin — bass player Laura Lee, drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson and guitarist, percussionist and keyboard player Mark Speer — took a wide-open approach to the music.

“Eric asked me to send [Khruangbin] the songs,” Touré said, “but it’s good to go there, sit down and start to play. This is the best way to do it, because when we start something, and nobody knows what it’s going to be, we say, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ We just play.” He said things unfolded like a jam session, very spontaneous relaxed.

Speer agreed, saying the band was surprised every time Touré started playing. “I’d never heard [the songs] before, which was kinda great. At first I thought, ‘He didn’t send over these songs?’ But then I thought, ‘Actually, maybe it’s better we come to it completely fresh.’”

Lee agreed: “When we played them during the recording process, the three of us had never heard them. We didn’t know what we were doing until we were playing them.”

Touré and Speer both play guitar, but didn’t get in each other’s way, as they added fills and ad-libs to the unfolding melodies. “My guitar has two pickups, electric and acoustic,” Touré said. “Sometimes you hear the electric and sometimes you hear the acoustic.”

“There was a point in this project where I said, ‘I’m not gonna play guitar,’” Speer said. “‘Vieux’s got this covered. This sounds great. If I add, it’s just gonna take away. You know what? I’m gonna go and just play keyboards.’” In the end, Touré convinced him to stay and play guitar with him.

The arrangements on Ali cover an eclectic range of influences.

Ali Farka Touré’s recording of “Lobo” is sparse, with guitar unspooling against a background of hand percussion. The new version opens with Touré stating the melody on his own, then the band jumps in with Johnson laying down a crisp funk beat on snare, accented by echoing dub effects and Lee’s medium-tempo bass pulse.

Speer plays jazzy, midrange fills, while Touré ornaments the melody with sitar-like improvisations. The lyrics (translation included) describe the struggles of a woman bringing up a family in Mali.

“Tamalla” opens with Touré playing the melody with a flurry of Congolese guitar lines. Johnson taps out an R&B rhythm on snares, with Speer adding Latin counterrhythms on congas.

The trio also supplies call-and-response vocals. Near the end, Johnson speeds up the tempo to a brisk soukous beat. Then there’s “Mahine Me,” where the original was played as a desert blues. Khruangbin lays down a laid-back funk/rock beat, leaving Touré space to rock out before everything shifts into a slow coda, with Lee’s bass at the front.

After the COVID delay, Khruangbin went back into the studio to do the final mix and found that the original recordings “have the magic and the energy and spirit of that initial take, when the three of us didn’t know what songs we were playing until we were playing them,” Lee said. “A lot of times, there’s a freshness that’s really beautiful in it. But it was something that we also wanted to refine. I specifically wanted to craft bass lines in a few of the songs, just to make sure it sounded more like me.”

To complete the album package, Lee went looking for a cover image by an artist from Mali. She saw a work by Abdoulaye Konaté and reached out to Herman, who made the connection. “Laura sent me a picture of a piece that’s called L’Homme du Sahel (Man Of The Sahel),” Herman said. He called Touré who said, “Oh, that’s no problem. He’s my uncle. Konaté graciously gave permission to use the art. The original is in a gallery in Italy. Konaté had people at the gallery take some photos of it and the production staff worked with them to create the cover art.

Khruangbin is a byproduct of the friendship between the three musicians. They began playing as a unit after several years of hanging out, discussing their affection for a wide range of sounds including funk, dub reggae, surf-rock, ska, Middle Eastern soul, West African music — in particular the guitar stylings of Ali Farka Touré — and Southeast Asian funk. (The band’s name is Thai for airplane.)

“The evolution of the sound, our sound, is a culmination of all the things that we listen to that inspire us,” Johnson said. “We all listen to different things. We all come from different places. And Khruangbin happens within that Venn diagram where the three circles meet. That’s basically what it is. And that’s been the evolution of the sound, and it continues to evolve, because we keep listening to different music and being reinspired by things. I feel like I got an extreme crash course in Malian music and Malian culture from the son of a legend, and a legend in his own right.” DB




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