Being the child of a music legend is not without its challenges, especially if you’re trying to carve out a path in the same field as your famous parent. There’s no right way to do it, but Vieux Farka Toure – son of the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s “King of Desert Blues”– has handled it better than most. Rather than distancing himself from his father’s legacy, you could say that Vieux has expanded upon it, picking up where the elder Toure left off.
At first, Vieux’s dream of becoming a musician was opposed by Ali, who was acutely aware of the cutthroat nature of the music business. Vieux pressed on regardless, first learning the djembe before moving on to guitar, then enrolling at Mali’s prestigious National School of the Arts to receive professional tuition. Ali, perhaps impressed by his son’s tenacity, changed his stance, and in 2004 devoted himself to teaching his signature guitar style to Vieux. It wasn’t a moment too soon: within two years, Ali Farka Toure had passed away from cancer.
Vieux’s debut album arrived in 2007. Since then, he has walked a tightrope of staying true to his heritage while also pursuing innovative collaborations, such as the 2015 album Touristes with American singer Julia Easterlin, or his partnership with Israeli keyboardist and singer Idan Raichel in The Toure-Raichel Collective. 2022, however, has seen Vieux return to his roots. His album Les Racines, released earlier this year, specifically addresses the ongoing turmoil in his homeland of Mali. Taking things even closer to home, this new album, Ali, is an unabashed tribute to the music of his father.
For this project, Vieux has enlisted Khruangbin, a trio from Houston Texas that has been on a musical journey of its own over the last decade. Laura Lee (bass), Donald “DJ” Johnson (drums) and Mark Speer (guitar) came together in the early 2010s due to Speer and Lee’s shared love of Afghan music, which they have since parlayed into an Asian-influenced, groove-oriented sound. For them, you could say that this album represents a journey from Texas to Mali, via the Middle East.
Ali kicks off with “Savanne,” which was the title track on Ali Farka Toure’s final, posthumously released solo album in 2006. This track serves as an overture for the record, with Mark Speer leaving the guitar duties to Vieux while Lee and Johnson provide nuanced rhythmic backing. Speer is back on “Lobbo,” from Ali’s 1990 album The River, playing quietly intricate rhythm guitar underneath Vieux’s sharp improvisations. It’s here that a recurring problem rears its head: Speer’s guitar is mixed very slightly louder than Vieux’s, when it should be the other way around. Nonetheless, Mark’s playing is brilliantly restrained (on regular Khruangbin albums he’s much more prominent) and compliments Vieux perfectly.
“Diarabi” is from Ali’s famous album Talking Timbuktu, a collaboration with Ry Cooder recorded in Hollywood in 1993. Ali despised Los Angeles, considering it (according to Cooder in a 2006 BBC Radio interview ) “a spiritual parking lot.” The same cannot be said of this song, which is alive with ghosts and echoes of a distant past. Vieux and Khruangbin add a psychedelic rhythm, but “Diarabi” looses none of its mystical charm.
“Tongo Barra” finds Vieux duetting with his own lead guitar, which weaves around his voice while Khruangbin lock into a hypnotic groove behind him. “Tamalla,” another track from Ali’s The River, slows things down a little, with Speer sitting out once again so Vieux can take center stage. The mix lets this one down slightly, with Vieux’s vocal placed way in the background, but Lee and Johnson’s tireless rhythm is infectious, ably keeping pace with Vieux’s lightning-fast fretwork.
Just as we’re getting comfortable in Mali, the album takes an unexpected detour to Louisiana with “Mahine Me.” This song, from Ali’s 1993 album The Source, puts Vieux’s guitar front and center alongside a zydeco accordion, briefly transporting us to a bar on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. It’s a delightful reflection of two acts sharing their love for seeking out different musical cultures.
Ali Farka Toure, although he died at the age of only 66, had an aura about him that suggested he’d been around for much longer. As Ry Cooder put it in the BBC interview: “He always seemed to know what was coming… He had a way of seeing things, and knowing things…. that you’d be hard pressed to know how in the hell he knew that.” This deeply spiritual side of the elder Toure is captured on this album’s penultimate track, “Ali Hala Abada.” It sounds like Vieux is communicating with his father across the divide, repeating Ali’s name over and over across Khruangbin’s dreamlike soundscape.
The final track, “Alakarra,” acts as a coda for “Ali Hala Abada.” This song was one Ali Farka Toure recorded multiple times under a variety of different names. It can be found on The Source under the title “I Go Ka,” while a slower instrumental version called “A.S.C.O” appears on 1999’s Niafunke. Ali’s final recording of this song – this time titled “Tabara” – can be found on Vieux Farka Toure’s debut album, on which the younger Toure gamely follows along behind his father’s lead guitar. On “Alakarra,” Vieux is now playing his father’s lead part, while Mark Speer fills Vieux’s old position. There are moments earlier on the album where it sounds like Mark and Vieux’s styles don’t quite mesh, but on this track they deliver some of the finest guitar weaving in recent memory.
Putting aside occasional reservations about the mix (which, guitar imbalance aside, is quite lovely), Ali is an album that works on every level. As a tribute to Ali Farka Toure, it is reverential without being afraid to push the music in new directions. As a collaboration, it finds two acts who eager to accommodate each other while celebrating their differences. And as 37 minutes of groove-based, exploratory music, it is nothing less than a joy.
4. Tongo Barra
6. Mahine Me
7. Ali Hala Abada
The author is indebted to Corey Harris’ book Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure for background information on Ali and Vieux.
Vieux Farka Toure appears on In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2, which is included in our epic list of The 50 Greatest Tribute Albums Ever!