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Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté – Ali & Toumani

by on 10 March, 2010

in Album Reviews, Features, Interviews

Recorded over three afternoons at Livingston Studios, London, in 2005, with contributions from Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López on bass, ‘Ali & Toumani’ is Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté’s second and final album together. Produced by Nick Gold and beautifully recorded by Jerry Boys, this is the successor to the GRAMMY winning ‘In the Heart of the Moon’ and the last album recorded by both Ali Farka Touré and Cachaíto López. “I believe this album to be stronger and wiser, better than ‘In The Heart'”. Toumani Diabaté

“When you’re listening to this album it’s like you’re reading a book about Ali. The album was going to be a summing up of all the albums that Ali had done in the past. It wasn’t about covering old songs just because there weren’t any new ones, no not at all. It was about revealing all the different possibilities once again. It was the very last album he made.

Ali had a gift. He was a musical phenomenon, a pioneer of music, a trainer. I think he was created by God for that purpose. His mission was to promote African culture, particularly Malian culture, and he worked at it all his life. He didn’t make music only for Mali. He made music for Mali, Africa and the entire world. He was unique in his field. He was a historian. He was a marabout. He was a healer. He was multidimensional.

Everybody was talking about ‘In The Heart Of The Moon’ when it came out. It was an immediate success, thanks be to God, and it scooped a Grammy Award. But let’s say that I’m a believer, and I thought that we had more to do. My idea was that he and I create one more album, for our pleasure first of all, for the pleasure of our families, and for the pleasure of all those who would listen to it.

I didn’t know whether it was I who was going to die before Ali, or it was Ali who was going to die before me. If he or I departed this life, I wanted there to be something left behind which our families could listen to and say “Ah, there you are!” Ali’s not here physically, but we can carry on listening to him. That was my train of thought.

Following on from the success of our first album together, Ali and I were asked to do some concerts in London, Rome and at the Nice Jazz Festival. So, knowing that there was more music to come from Ali, I asked Nick if it would be possible to bring us over a bit earlier to go back into the studio. Nick agreed immediately, and also suggested that we invite Cachaíto. Ali didn’t know about it yet. But, peace be on his soul, he was someone who never said no to me. He never refused me. That was the bond between us.

When we arrived in London I said to Ali, “We’ve come to London earlier than anticipated so that you and I can make an album.” “Really?!” He answered. “Ok, that’s fine by me.” And the next day Nick came to the hotel to fetch us and bring us to the studio.

But Ali was ill. He was having bad attacks of pain. There were moments, when playing a song, that we were forced to stop, because Ali was in so much pain. It was hard for him to make this album, but he wanted to continue. At one moment during the sessions I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” I didn’t want him to suffer. We’d start a song and he’d play and play and play and then, at a certain moment, he would just stop and grimace, or bow his head. So we’d stop. But then he would say, “No! Let’s carry on.” In the end I said, “Thank God we’ve done it, we’ve done it!”

What really surprised me when I played with Ali was how brilliantly he mastered the songs from the south, the Mandé songs of the griots, our songs. Ali isn’t a griot. He’s never been a griot. You’re born a griot but you can never become one. Ali was a noble person, and the master of so many musical styles from the north. Mali is at the heart of West African culture. It’s a country in which each region has its own music, each region has its things to say, each region is different to the other, but there’s a communion and everybody can find common ground. Ali knew that, he lived for that, he fought for that, and he showed the world that it was true.

This is a more refined record than ‘In The Heart Of The Moon’. We had more time to record, to listen and to record again. We really needed that to understand things better and to try and make them perfect. Recording at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako where we did the first album was good. It was the first time we had played together. It was in Africa and there’s an African vibe on the record. But after Ali and I had played a few concerts together, and spent a lot more time together, the spirits really became entwined. From the point of view of musical concept, or arrangements, of technique of playing, we invested a lot more than on the first album. The spirit was to make a wiser album, a softer album, an acoustic album that we could savour.

Toumani Diabaté (in conversation with and edited by Andy Morgan).

This is how Ali played alone in private. If he played to himself and you happened to be in the room with him, he would touch the guitar very softly. It was beautiful to watch. But when he got into the studio, the volume was upped by 10!! But this time he didn’t do that.

‘Ruby’ is a Bobo song that Ali had heard in San, a village on the road to his home in Niafunke. It must have been a completely new tune to Toumani. A lot of this repertoire was new to him.

My 5 year old daughter Ruby and I were sat on the floor at Ali’s feet for this. Because the kora is such a quiet instrument, you have to be very still when it’s being recorded. Any creak or breath can be heard. We held our breath through much of the song. When it was over I asked “What’s that one called?” And Ali just looked at Ruby and said, “Ruby!”

Ali had been playing this song since the 60’s. It’s his take on Cuban salsa with lyrics in Songhai. The title means ‘Thanks to God’ and the lyrics celebrate Mali’s independence. This is the only time Ali recorded the piece. Maybe it was a gesture to Cachaíto. Ali asked that we add some backing vocals and congas which we did later with Ali’s son Vieux and his group.

The Independence of Mali did us good
As we have got our land back
As we are now hopeful
As we have got our rivers back
As we have all that belongs to us
So we are proud and we are well

An ancient Mandé song that Toumani and Ali play as a waltz. Toumani says that “the proverb at the centre of the song says something like ‘It’s the blessings that make the tears fall’. It means that if you think of someone you love, of someone in whom you’ve invested your hope, and that person dies, then you’ll cry for sure. Why? Because there was hope. Because that person was dear to you. And tears fall because of the blessings. The song is also a hymn dedicated to Alpha Yaya Diallo, a great warrior from Guinea Conakry. And what’s more, the song is now also the national anthem of Guinea Conakry. The song says that, like the fingers on a hand, people are never equal. Alpha Yaya Diallo was a great man, just like Pele in Football. No one can be equal to him.”

This is based on a traditional Mandé song, which has links to the period when Mali, Guinea and Senegal became independent. There are influences of the sabar drum and mbalax rhythm from Senegal in Toumani’s playing. Ali’s accompaniment is taken from ‘Singya’, a piece he recorded on his album ‘Ali Farka Toure’. Toumani named it after Ali’s youngest son.

Warbe translates as ‘les hommes’ and is dedicated to those who fight to protect their people. It is one of the pure Peul groove pieces that Ali played. You can hear Toumani say ‘Toure’ in response to some of Ali’s trademark picking. But what is also fantastic is Toumani’s own groove. At the end of the tune Ali said, “Right, I want shakers and congas on it. You’ll do that won’t you?” I said, “Ok,” and a little time later Vieux and his percussionist did just that.

In the studio we asked Ali, “Is there another Peul song that you haven’t recorded before?” And he played around on the guitar and came up with this. That’s how a lot of the songs were chosen, on the spot. Samba Geladio (aka ‘Samba Gueladio Diégui’) was a Peul prince from the Fouta region of West Africa. After the death of his father, King Fonkobo, Samba Geladio was involved in a bitter struggle with his uncle Konkobo and his half-brothers for his share of the kingdom. These events apparently took place in the 17th century and have become the subject of an epic tale of heroism, which is often recited by the griots to musical accompaniment, with plenty of magical and mystical enhancements.

This song remained mythic for Ali. Everything started here. This was the very first song he heard played on the guitar, by Keita Fodeba, in Guinea back in 1956. It was this moment, he said, that inspired him to learn and dedicate himself to the guitar, to transpose the techniques he’d learned on the traditional one string guitar.

The lyrics are an old Mandé tale, a legend. Sina Mory was an orphan, but his father had married a second wife called Samarata before he died, who also had children of her own. She wanted to assassinate Sina Mory because she’d heard from the fortune-tellers that one day Sina Mory would become king. But there was a maid who worked in the household and who protected Sina Mory. So when Samarata put poison in the goat sauce, the maid saw it happen and would sing to Sina Mory when he came back from town to eat: “Sina Mory be careful, Sina Mory be careful…Do not eat the curry sauce.” Or “That sour milk, with sugar and honey, is safe to eat!”

Ali was very happy to record this song towards the end of his life. In the studio, there were moments when they’d wonder which song to play next. During one such moment I asked Ali, “What was that first song that inspired you to play the guitar?” I’d asked him about it many times before but he’d always said he couldn’t remember. But on that day, he just said “Momento…,” had a think and started playing it. Maybe he was aware that this would be one of his last recordings. Or maybe he thought Toumani was the right person to accompany him and bring out the song.

8. 56
This song comes from the Guinea golden age, from the same vintage as Sina Mory. As Toumani says “It’s one among many songs that date from just before independence, and which left their mark on life. Ali invented his own guitar style. It was a transposition of the traditional instruments of northern Mali onto the modern guitar, with some very special chords and tunings.” Ali said that the main problem with moving from the one string guitar to the six string was that now there were six strings to deal with and he’d have to touch them all so as not to cause any jealousy between them.

This is a piece that Toumani composed in the studio, on the spot.

Toumani says “I rehearsed the song with Ali’s son, Vieux, back in Bamako before we came over to record the album. Vieux also wanted to get to know certain Mandé songs, so we worked together back at my house, without Ali really knowing about it.” This is an old song that Ali had recorded twice before as a vocal, once in the early ‘70s at Radio Mali, and on ‘Savane’. But this is the first time it has been played on the kora. It’s a patriotic Songhai song encouraging all Malians to work to contribute to the good of Mali.

Toumani says “Kala Djula is the Mandé hymn of the griots, dedicated to everyone who has the name Diabaté. ‘Djula’ means tradesman or merchant. And Kala is the name of a village from the the Manding Empire. So the title means ‘The Merchant of Kala’. All the griot families have their song. There’s a song for the Keitas, a song for the Kouyatés. The Kouyatés are number one. There’s never a griot who can equal a Kouyate. That’s how it is. Kala is where gold comes from. The lyrics praise the Diabatés and say ‘Whenever or however you meet a Diabaté, there will be something golden, at least one gram of gold in his pockets’. It means that we’re able and generous. Because being a Diabaté means that no one can refuse you. Every family name in Mandé culture means something.”

Nick Gold (in conversation with and edited by Andy Morgan)

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fudged March 11, 2010 at 12:11 am

Thanks Alex – this will be a must-have for me. ‘In the Heart of the Moon’ is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard and I still lose myself in it regularly. I’m certain ‘Ali & Toumani’ will prove a worthy successor