In recent years Mali, in West Africa, seems to have produced a large number of musicians who’ve received international attention: Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, the late Ali Farka Touré, Tinariwen and Mory Kanté all come readily to mind. And, since 2011, Sidi Touré has been another name to add to this list. (If you’re wondering where the women musicians are, check out the YouTube videos of Kandia Kouyatés, Rokia Traoré and Khaira Arby:
Like Ali Farka Touré before him, Sidi Touré’s music is rooted in the songhaï blues style of Northern Mali and his new album Alafia, recorded in Nantes, France and Bamako in Mali is possibly his most accessible recording to date.
Like many developing countries in Africa, Mali has not escaped armed conflict: in January 2012 Tuareg rebels took control of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao in Northern Mali, declared the secession of a new state, Azawad, and imposed sharia law. A subsequent coup d’état and a military intervention by the French Armed Forces have also left their mark and it is against this turbulent background that Alafia was recorded. The rebellion brought with it a ban on both music and secular art, resulting in an exodus from Mali of many of its artists. For Sidi Touré and his band, who were touring in Europe at the time, it meant they were effectively exiled in France, which is where they began work on what was to become Alafia. As soon as some sense of order was restored in Northern Mali, they returned and completed recording in Bamako.
Alafia means “peace” and it’s clear that this was a major preoccupation for Touré, both personally and as a reflection and commentary on the events in his country. While songs like L’eau (The Water) and Annour El Sahel (The Light of Sahel) are leisurely, pastoral tunes which convey an obvious sense of peacefulness, more often the listener is likely to find herself almost zoned out by the polyrhythmic complexity, lightning-fast guitar riffs and vocal chants. It’s here that a deeper, more spiritual peace is to be found, an internal peace of mind that comes from the trance-like state created by the irresistibly infectious grooves which permeate the album, notably in tracks like Ay Hora (My Dance) and Ay Takamba (My Takamba).
As I’ve been writing this, with Alafia cranked up high in my headphones, I’ve been thinking about the irrelevance of marketing labels like “world music”. Leaving aside its obvious flaw (its insistence on viewing everything that isn’t Western pop/rock as something “other” – and by inference, in some way inferior) it also fails to take account of the less tangible aspects of music, such as its ability to break down barriers, to bring people together. And these things are of vital importance to Sidi Touré; as he said in an interview with Spin magazine at the height of the 2012 uprising: “I can only sing that Mali is a multiracial country, that we have to be united and reconciled, and we must forgive each other for a strong and prosperous Mali”.
And as beautiful and bright and happy and sad as Alafia is – and it is all of these things and more – its real heart and soul are to be found in its power to bring people together, to unify and to heal. It’s a beacon in the darkness of uncertain times and we could all benefit from letting some Alafia into our lives.
Review by: Helen Gregory