Vieux Farka Touré: The Fortunate Son
Vieux Farka Touré was drawn to music because of his father but pursued it in spite of him.
Vieux Farka Touré is an admired singer and guitarist, often referred to as the “Hendrix of the Sahara.”
He was born in 1981 in Niafunké, Mali as Boureima Farka Touré (“Vieux” means “old” in French). His father, multi-instrumentalist blues player Ali Farka Touré (1939–2006), is one of the best-regarded African musicians of recent years. The elder Touré discouraged his son from playing music, but Vieux secretly took up the guitar and studied at Mali’s Institut National des Arts.
His father played on Touré’s eponymous 2007 album, his first of six studio releases. Touré is also known for his collaborations with Israeli singer and pianist Idan Raichel. The pair have released two albums as the Touré-Raichel Collective. Their first record, The Tel Aviv Session (2012), reached number 1 on the iTunes World Music sales charts and number 2 on the Billboard World Music chart.
Touré is the founder of Amahrec Sahel, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments for kids and supports humanitarian reconstruction in the wake of Mali’s civil war.
Vieux Farka Touré is one of Mali’s most widely acclaimed musicians. He’s been called, among other things, the Hendrix of the Sahara.
Vieux Farka Touré: I am a musician, so I like to bring the story. My job I think it’s, educate the people about what’s happened, in the north Mali.
In recent years, Farka Touré’s native Mali has had its share of troubles, including civil war, extreme poverty, and acts of terror, but through it all, the country’s music remains persistently joyful. At the heart of the Malian music tradition are troubadours, called ‘Griot,’ who served as the keepers of communal knowledge for hundreds of years.
Farka Touré: Griot have the memory, the memory for all the tradition from Mali. They know, if I would like to know where the Touré come from, you have to go to the Griot. They are going to tell us everything about the Touré, where they come from, who are the first guys coming here, who are the second Touré, what are they doing. They have everything.
The Griot tradition remains highly influential in the modern era, thanks in part to increased support for the arts that began in the 1960s. When Mali gained independence from France, the new government appreciated music’s ability to dispense information to its citizens.
Farka Touré: At this time, you don’t have TV. At this time, you don’t have radio station, but the people still listen to music. It’s propaganda, education, everything. It’s like the musicians are the newspaper, or television for the government.
With proper financial support, scores of musicians wrote songs on traditional and imported instruments. Before long, Malian musicians were popping up on the global stage, including the singer Fanta Damba, the famed kora player Toumani Diabate, and the Guinea-born, Mali-raised singer Mory Kanté, whose song, “Yeke Yeke” was a big pop hit in Europe, even reaching number one in the Netherlands and Spain. But arguably, the most celebrated was Ali Farka Touré, a singer and guitarist whose blues-tinged songs transcended national, linguistic, and genre boundaries. In awe of his father, Vieux Farka Touré always wanted to become a musician himself, but his dad, who’d been cheated out of earnings early in his career, discouraged his son. Thankfully, before his death in March 2006, Farka Touré, Sr., came around, agreeing to record tracks for his son’s debut album, but it wasn’t until much later that Vieux Farka Touré found out just how proud of him his father had truly been.
Farka Touré: He died just before the CD came out.
AJC: But he heard them?
Farka Touré: Yeah. When the CDs, when we do the rough mix for him, my uncle told me every night he usually listened to the CDs. But in the morning, he knows I’m going to come down, he took the CDs and put them somewhere. All the time, all the time they’d say, ‘You know your father loves your music, he loves what you do, you know, it’s good.’ Every night when everybody is sleeping, he put on the CD.
AJC: He was never going to tell you that.
Farka Touré: Yeah, he’s never going to tell me.
AJC: Old school father.
Farka Touré: Yeah, but he told my uncle, he said, ‘Okay, I hope and I’m sure this guy’s going to be a good musician one day.’
Since that self-titled debut, Vieux Farka Touré has recorded eight more albums, including two collaborations with the Israeli musician, Idan Raichel. And though not a griot himself, he does touch on social issues in his songs. “Ba Kaitere” singles out fair-weather friends.
(“Ba Kaitere” 2017)
Farka Touré: You know in this life many people think you have to have money to be a friend. When you have money, you have a lot of friends, but when the money’s done, everybody’s gone. Your friend is your friend. With money, without money, without anything, that love is love.
Some songs, though, are more personal. “Missing” is about his elder sister, Sumbu Touré, who died in 2011. And then there’s “Ali.”
Farka Touré: “Ali” is actually a song I play especially for my dad. He’s the most good guy we see in the world. Nobody can say, ‘Ali’s no good.’ Everywhere I go in the world they say, ‘your dad is a perfect guy.’ So, it’s good to tell that, to say, ‘thank you for everything you do for the world, for Mali, for the family, for your friends.’ Because Ali’s not used for his family, Ali’s for everybody.
AJC: Do you feel pressure being his son?
Farka Touré: It’s difficult, it’s very difficult, but you know, we just have to be like this, you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to be how he was,’ I’m not going to be like this, but you should try.