Ali Farka Toure – Savane

As keenly as the loss of this great artist has been felt around the world, there has also been an intense anticipation surrounding his last ever recording. We now know that the world’s most famous farmer was aware of his impending death in the last few years of his life and it is tempting to see the late burst of recordings and performances as his declared legacy


If ever an artist embodied the struggle between staying true to his roots and musical exploration, it was the late, great Ali Farka Touré. It would have been easy for him to become a fixture on the international stage playing with anyone he chose and the financial rewards would have been considerable. Instead, he turned his attention to expressing his own culture and exploring the links between it and the surrounding cultures. In doing so he became a local hero and a powerful symbol of national unity.

“I know this is my best album ever. It has the most power and it is the most different.”

Ali Farka Touré

Although we usually think of ‘fusion’ as a mix between something traditional and something Western, one could argue that Ali was permanently engaged in the twin processes of fusing and distillation most of his life — although his attention rarely wandered far from West Africa.
Savane was a work in progress for several years, but it was mainly recorded at the now legendary Hotel Mande sessions in Bamako, which saw the recording of his sensational collaboration with Toumani Diabate In the Heart of the Moon as well as Toumani’s own Symmetric Orchestra sessions, which has just been released.
Every note of Ali’s guitar and every sung word on Savane could come from no other artist. And yet, this is an album unlike any of previous albums. There is an unusually international ensemble of musicians including JB horn man Pee Wee Ellis (who has been on most World Circuit albums of late) and Fain S. Dueñas of Radio Tarifa plus ngoni musicians Bassekou Kouyate and Mama Sissoko and Dasy Saré.
Now let’s be under no illusions, each piece is bent to the will of Ali Farka Touré but under his distinctive canopy all kinds of interesting and surprising things are going on. The title song has a ska-like backbeat for the distinctive guitars to spring off and the opening track ‘Ewly’ features bold bluesy guitar offset by harmonica making the blues connection even stronger.
Famously, Ali Farka Touré always maintained he was not influenced by American blues musicians, he was just playing his traditional music. Attempts by musicologists to untangle this tale of origins have mostly come unstuck. One could see this album as a way of stating the external influences in his music or even an attempt to reach out but I think both interpretations are wrong and completely out of character. Carefully, meticulously and imaginatively Ali reclaims the entire African diaspora music for the people of Africa and in doing so he plants his flag on the entire 20th Century music catalogue.
It would be, in short, an enterprise of lunatic megalomania except that it works and can therefore be described as nothing less than genius.
Links:
Ali Farka Toure – Mr. Mayor, the Legend
Ali Farka Toure – Commander of the National Order of Mali
Ali Farka Toure – Farmer, Music Legend, Mayor 1939 – 2006
Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate – In the Heart of the Moon

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