Whenever he was asked to state his profession, Malian musician Ali Farka Touré liked to respond that he was a farmer.
Known as the country’s greatest guitarist, he stepped away from music in 2000, retreating to his village in the semi-desert region of Niafunke to cultivate both his rice farm and his community. In 2004, he was elected mayor of Niafunke’s 53 villages and invested the majority of his music royalties into an irrigation scheme.
At home, he was considered a national hero. When he died in 2006, radio stations suspended programs that played his music – a slow, looping version of the blues that drew on West African traditions as well as John Lee Hooker’s guitar improvisations.
The songs on the album were hand-picked by Ali’s 11 children and include well-known songs like Diarabi, songs about a man who marries someone else because he can’t afford a dowry, and more obscure songs like Alakara.
But before the tapes started playing, Vieux never told Khruangbin’s musicians what they would be playing.
“He didn’t give us any background information,” says drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson. “He wanted us to come out with a fresh look, so we blindly recorded eight songs that he taught us in a way.
“We didn’t even know the names of the songs until we were almost done with the project,” Ochoa added.
“The working titles were ‘Song One,’ ‘Song Two,’ ‘Song Three’ and ‘Song Four ‘ that lasted a long time.
“Vieux wanted us to approach it with a blank sheet of paper, and I think that was the right way to go. Because once you know what the original is and the context of it, it’s easy for your brain to copy it or try to copy it to do the opposite.”
Vieux says these sessions were informed by his father, who prioritized improvisation in the studio.
“My father always said, ‘We always have to do the best we can.’ When I’m in the studio with my guitar, his words go through my whole body, so it comes naturally. It’s a feeling that can’t really be explained.”
The fact that Vieux makes music is a miracle.
Ali Farka Touré discouraged his family from getting involved in the business because he was victimized by the ruthless concert promoters and record label owners.
Instead, he suggested that Vieux enter the army, where he could expect a regular payday. His son defiantly played along with his father’s records and practiced guitar in secret. When he came of age and declared his intentions, it created a rift that would take years to heal.
It wasn’t until the end of Ali’s life, as he died of cancer, that he gave Vieux his blessing – even recording a contribution to his son’s eponymous debut album shortly before his death.
Since then, Vieux has shunned his father’s legacy. He has deliberately followed a unique musical path, producing 2011’s “Secrets” with jazz superstar John Scofield and American rock star Dave Matthews and recording two improvised albums with Israeli singer Idan Rachel.
Source of inspiration
It’s hard to be the child of someone who’s been to the top of the mountain,” he told Songlines in 2020. I knew I had to establish my own identity. It was the only way for people to listen and not just say, ‘He’s never going to be as good as his father.'”
Vieux succeeded on his own merits, and he was able to let go of his father’s influence to shine through. But that decision was also influenced by the ongoing ethnic tensions and violence in Mali.
On his most recent album Les Racines (The Roots), Vieux returns to desert blues to emphasize his message of unity and peace. On Ngala Kaourene, he makes a passionate call for national reconciliation through a soft but urgent guitar line.
Khruangbin’s collaboration, though recorded for the first time, continues this theme. It opens with Savane, a song recorded by Ali in protest of Western intervention in Mali’s domestic problems.
“Instead of giving us bombs, we should be given engines so we can meet our needs,” he sings.
“Savane was the last album my father made while he was alive to give him peace of mind,” Vieux said. “I made it the first [track] on this album to pay tribute to him and to show through the music that he was and still is an inspiration to me.”
For Khruangbin, however, the importance of Ali’s song only became apparent after the recording was finished. In fact, they only learned what Savane meant when they started adding vocal dubs and contacting Vieux to make sure their words weren’t subverting the original.
But that’s what gives the album its character. Free from the weight of Ali’s history, Khruangbin followed their instincts – adding elements of zydeco and cajun music to the West African rhythms.
“Our aim has always been to bring people together with music,” Ochoa says. “And I think this album offers a unique opportunity to combine what we do with people from different parts of the world – and hopefully that will bring people together in a bigger way.”
“This album, for me, is really good and heavy,” Vieux said. “It’s an album where we experiment with loving patience and an open mind, while also relying on African culture as a source.
“It’s different and new, but also familiar and universal.”
And that casserole fish that powered the conference?
“I can’t give you the recipe, it’s top secret!” He laughed. “You’ll have to come to Mali, maybe my mom will give you the secret recipe!”
Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Touré’s album Ali will be released on Friday, September 23.