Ali Farka Toure - Ali & Toumani
Ali & Toumani starts spare and hauntingly beautiful then paces forward with swaying grooves, crafting an overall feeling that’s somewhere greater than contentment but a bit more aching than joy. Ali & Toumani is, in many ways, the sound of death and the myriad of complicated emotions that travel with it.
Ali Farka Touré was a Malian born guitarist who married some elements of Saharan folk with a re-imagined, almost brand new take on its cousin: American blues. If that sounds wonky or pretentious to you, then you simply have to hear this record. If this was the first music you ever heard in your entire life with no context at all, it would remain deeply alluring and absolutely stunning in its beauty. It’s simple and elegant and easy to listen to. “Easy to listen to” would seem to beget an idea that this is easy listening. It’s not. There’s a lot of sound to unpack – this is a desert island album.
This is an album about death. Not because it deals with death thematically or lyrically and not because the music sounds like it was made to be played at a funeral – No, death runs a current through Ali & Toumani because Ali Touré died almost five years ago. This is the second, and likely final album released after Ali died, and it contains an extra emotional resonance – an emotional resonance rare in instrumental music – due to the circumstances under which it was recorded and the even more emotional circumstances under which it is released today.
For his part Toumani Diabaté provides accompaniment – brilliant, subtle and perfectly complementary accompaniment -- with his kora, an instrument that looks like a cross between a large sitar and a lute but in practice sounds more like a dark-toned harp.
It’s difficult to ascertain if Toumani was working on the album with Ali during the initial turn or if the kora has been added after the fact to given the album a more “finished” feel. Either way, it’s seamless; this does not sound like an unfinished record. It’s additionally unclear how much of the music is improvised. Many of the tracks establish an underlying groove that either the guitar or the kora play over while slightly shifting the earth and laying ground work for the next modulation, the next movement or the next progression. The music steps forward slowly and imperceptibly and before you realize it, it’s 4 minutes later and you’re miles musically from where you started, wondering how you got there.
If nothing else, this is the swan song of one of the greatest guitarists in world history. Ali Farka Touré not only getting more technically proficient as he got older (something that is not rare if one stays with their craft), but he had the rare gift of getting more vital as he aged as well. His music didn’t reflect a jaded world view or a man showing off the latest tricks he learned but a man who became more comfortable understanding the small stratified layers that comprise the musical puzzle.
This is a fitting and touching goodbye from a truly unique musical soul. I can’t recommend this album highly enough.
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