Vieux Farka Touré is known as the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’. Growing up on the shores of the Niger river in northern Mali, his scintillating guitar playing has made him into a global star. His impressive catalogue of albums includes collaborations with Idan Raichel, Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté, Derek Trucks & Dave Matthews and his greatest influence, his father Ali Farka Touré. His latest album, Samba, has just been released on Six Degrees records. I caught up with him before his recent show at Leeds’ Howard Assembly Rooms.
What was it like growing up as a boy in Niafunké?
I had a very nice childhood. I had my grandparents there, my uncles and aunts, and of course my mother, my brothers and sisters. My father was often abroad or in Bamako when I was young, but more and more he was there as well. Niafunké is a quiet desert village just off the Niger river. Everyone knows everyone and it is almost like one big family. We look out for each other. We would all play music together and this was my first experience with music, watching different people play in the street.
I was amazed to read the Manden Charter (Kourouka Fouga) that protected the rights of West African women in 1235 AD, saying: ‘we must respect women, they are our mothers’. This seems have been an important theme in your last album, Touristes with Julia Easterlin. How important were the women in your life growing up? And what is the status of women in Mali?
In Mali, the mother is the center of the family and everyone respects her. The riches of the family, they will be worn as jewellery by the mother. That is a reflection of the way we value the mother in our culture. Even our standard greeting, when someone says good day to you, as a man you say ‘mba’ which means ‘by the grace of my mother’ whereas women will say ‘nse’ which means ‘it is my power’.
Of course it is still a culture where men have more power than women, but to me the women in my life are of the highest importance. On my new album I praise them with the song Mariam, who is my sister.
You’ve been called the ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’ and your father was compared to John Lee Hooker. What influence has American blues had on you and how connected do you feel to it as an African blues musician?
Some of the earliest memories I have are racing down the desert road listening to BB King and John Lee Hooker at full volume with my father. This is what gave me the love of American blues, I think. Of course, there is such a strong connection between the blues in the US and in Africa, it is hard to separate them. I just love the blues, the music based on the pentatonic scale. To me this is the deepest music that pierces the soul.
Ry Cooder said your father connected to ‘a spirit that was already there in your music’, that the music wasn’t about him, but that he was a channel for the music. Is this something you feel? Is it like entering a trance?
Yes, that is the perfect description of the feeling.
Can you explain your songwriting process? How much of your songs are traditional, and what are your invention?
I don’t really play traditional songs very much. Sometimes, but not often. Most of the time I play my original songs, and I will often play one or two songs of my father’s at my shows to pay respect to him. For me songwriting is very natural. I just let new things come out of me and I write them down or play them on the guitar and I dont think about it very much. For me as an artist, the more spontaneous and natural, the better.
You have set up the organisation AMAHREC Sahel. Could you explain what this does and what problems it seeks to address?
AMAHREC Sahel is an organization that serves the poor communities of the Sahel in several ways, through funding orphanages, providing mosquito nets, food, clean water, etc. Basically, we will do what is needed in a given community. We want to listen to the people of the community and understand their problems before we work to provide them with something that maybe they do not need or is not the best use of the money we have raised for them.
I look forward to seeing you in Leeds and welcoming you back to the Howard Assembly Room. What are you memories of previous visits?
It is always an honor and a joy for me to tour in the UK and spend time with the people there who are always very warm and kind. I am lucky to have this opportunity again next week, thank God, and will make sure we all have a great time together.
Vieux’s most recent album, Samba, is available here. Check out his latest video of the Samba session in Woodstock here. My absolute favourite album of his is Mon Pays, his achingly beautiful tribute to his troubled homeland. His albums with Idan Raichel (as the Touré-Raichel Collective) are similarly stunning.
Filed under: Music