TEACHER: For Toure, “the more traditional it gets, the more variety is possible.”
Just over a year before Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure died of cancer last March, I visited him at his second home in Bamako, the Malian capital. He was holding court, previewing rough mixes of recent recordings that included what was destined to be released posthumously as Savane (Nonesuch), his first album in more than five years. Toure was particularly proud of the minute attention he’d paid to the cultural significance of each track. He may be known worldwide as an “African bluesman,” but he never embraced this idea. His true purpose was to educate people about the rich but neglected cultures of the Malian north — the Sonrai, Songoy, Peul, and Tuareg peoples. In one melodious song from Savane, “Machengoidi,” he asks “What is your contribution to the development of society?” and then answers “I am a teacher.”
“When I think of my beginning in music,” he told me that day, “and when I hear it again, I sense a great improvement in the depth of my research and in the knowledge that I have. But that doesn’t surprise me, because I grew up in this culture. I have evolved with it, practiced it, and I know it from A to Z. No matter what culture you talk about in Mali, when I play those songs, I have all the resources, the knowledge not only of its substance but its biography, and its roots.”
On Savane, Toure covers more stylistic ground than on his previous albums. As his long-time producer. Nick Gold, said when I later met with him in New York, this was not a man who enjoyed making records. “Before this, you’d have to sort of persuade or cajole Ali into the studio. Savane was a record he very much wanted to make.”
The album was mostly recorded in two sessions, generally starting from raw tracks with Toure on guitar and two musicians playing the spike lute known as ngoni or kurubu, one of them high-pitched and plinky, the other deep-toned and thrumming. “That was the core of the record,” Gold explained. “Ali would start playing a riff and just play and play and play until the other two locked in. It was very organic. He worked on the songs a lot, to finesse them and sculpt them. Then once he was ready to record, he banged ’em down.”
That immediacy comes through on all the material, from the stately, loping “Beta,” a spirit dance from Niger, to the folksy, reggae-tinged “Savane” to the hypnotic Peul celebration “Penda Yoro.” Here, three ngoni players contribute, including Mama Sissoko, a master of Malian traditional music, and Basekou Kouyate, a young innovator who has worked with Taj Mahal and Béla Fleck. Gold recruited overdubs from Pee Wee Ellis on tenor sax and Radio Tarifa percussionist Fain Duenas. Along with harmonica, these additions fatten the mix, notably on the opening “Erdi,” a song built around a majestic mega riff and dense with diverse instrumental voices.