Ali Farka Touré: 1939-2006

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Ali Farka Touré, the self-taught Malian guitarist and songwriter who merged West African traditions with the blues and carried his music to a worldwide audience, winning two Grammy Awards, died in his sleep on Monday at his farm in the village of Niafunke in northwestern Mali, the Ministry of Culture of Mali announced.


Mr. Touré’s deep grounding in Malian traditions made him one of African music’s most profound innovators. “Mali is first and foremost a library of the history of African music,” he said in a 2005 interview with the world-music magazine Fly. “It is also the sharing of history, legend, biography of Africa.”

In Mali he was considered a national hero. At the news of his death, government radio stations there suspended regular programming to play his music.

Mr. Touré collaborated widely, winning Grammys for albums he made with the American guitarist Ry Cooder (“Talking Timbuktu” in 1994) and with the Malian griot Toumani Diabaté (“In the Heart of the Moon,” 2005). He also recorded with the American bluesman Taj Mahal.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Cooder said: “It’s important for a traditional performer to be coming from a place and tradition, and most people who are like that tend to be part of their scene rather than transcendent of their scene. That’s what their calling is all about. But Ali was a seeker. There was powerful psychology there. He was not governed by anything. He was free to move about in his mind.”

Mr. Touré forged connections between the hypnotic modal riffs of Malian songs and the driving one-chord boogie of American bluesmen like John Lee Hooker; he mingled the plucked patterns of traditional songs with the aggressive lead-guitar lines of rock. He sang in various West African languages — his own Sonrai as well as Songhai, Bambara, Peul, Tamasheck and others — reflecting the traditional foundations of the songs he wrote. His lyrics, in West African style, represented the conscience of a community, urging listeners to work hard, honor the past and act virtuously.

I must have listened to Talking Timbuktu over a thousand times. Even a dozen years later you can still walk into coffee shops and bookstores and hear it playing.

It was a meeting of giants.

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