Malian guitarist, singer-songwriter and leader Vieux Farka Touré belongs to that new generation of African musicians that, while steeped in the tradition of their ancestors (in Vieux’s case the formidable musical legacy of his father, Ali Farka Touré), are very much at ease with western music which they have also in part grown up with. On Vieux’s latest album, ‘The secret’ (Six Degrees), the leader collaborates with Grammy winning blues guitarist and singer Derek Trucks and jazz guitarist John Scofield among others. His musical influences are wide-ranging to say the least and stretch from the electrified blues of John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters through to B.B. King, and rock music’s premier guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Contemporary American black music is equally cited with Beyoncé’s other half Jay-Z listed among Vieux’s desert island discs.
In live performance the sound differs from the studio recordings in two important respects. First of all the musical formation is significantly reduced, comprising on this evening of a trio with western drum kit and African percussion played by Tim Keiper, basslines courtesy of Valery Assouan and Touré himself on guitar and lead vocals. Secondly, the compositions laid down on CD merely serve as the pretext for some extended jam-session performances in a
live context that are, to the listener’s ears, a definite nod towards the music of both Cream and Hendrix in the late 1960s, though with an obvious additional West African dimension.
The evening’s entertainment commenced with an instantly recognisable blues riff solo that could only emanate from Mali, yet with Western drums, this made for a fascinating cross-fertilisation of northern and southern hemisphere sounds that blended together beautifully. Key to the successful interplay between the trio members is the manner in which the three musicians were able to shift gear, up or down, with seeming ease, at times reaching a crescendo only to immediately thereafter take the tempo all the way down in the very next passage. While this took the audience a little while to appreciate, once they had become attuned to the changes in rhythm, they were then smitten and thereafter hooked for the rest of the evening.
What, then, of Viuex Farka Touré the guitarist? While father Ali is a near impossible act to follow and a virtuoso of the Malian style of guitar playing, son Vieux is himself an accomplished guitarist and one who has wisely charted a distinctive path from his father and in so doing has widened his repertoire to external musical influences beyond Mali. Vieux’s family musical pedigrtee extends beyond even his father for his uncle is none other than fellow guitarist Afel Bocum while in many respects the spiritual father of Vieux is kora maestro Toumani Diabaté, who was a very close friend of father Ali. Thus the extended musical dynasty in which Vieux Farka Touré was born is even more impressive.
Indeed as the evening’s performance unfolded, it became apparent that Vieux was adept at playing rhythm guitar in funk and reggae idioms while weaving this into an underlying West African groove and this particular aspect was one of the night’s highlights. At times it felt as though Vieux Farka Touré was able to encapsulate the essence of Nile Rodgers, Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith and Eric Clapton into one musician being and that is no mean accomplishment. The crucial point here is that the sound created was both cohesive and deeply personal and the crowd reacted to the effort mustered by the trio.
Dialogue with the audience was kept to a minimum by the leader, though Vieux had clearly picked up some useful colloquial phrases in English and at one point was heard to enquire of the spectators, ‘What’s up? Why not dance?’, to which the audience responded positively on both accounts. Alongside Assouan, the leader and bassist started cooking up some hypnotic and lengthy grooves that had the audience in a party mood. Percussionist Keiper relished the challenge of this double guitar assault and laid down some melodic licks, alternating on occasions with the West African calabash, and other local instrumentation. For the listener there was a sense of being transported on a musical journey across the Sahara and the panormaic view conveyed was such that at some stage in ihs career, Vieux Farka Touré should seriously consider composing for film soundtracks since his music is ideal for that medium and it may just catapult his career in a similar way to that of Ry Cooder when he famously composed the music for ‘Paris, Texas’.
Nearing the end of their tour the trio were clearly in top form and at some point they really need to go into the studio and record together, and even better still, record themselves in an intimate live context. For a well received encore, Vieux Farka Touré performed a slow blues at a gentle tempo which part way through suddenly gathered pace and audience participation in the form of handclapping was immediate and forthcoming. A fine way to end the evening.