A lot of people, not just here in the NE are experiencing ‘Them Northern Europe winter blues’, and the most perfect antidote then, is the silver sand, perfect azure sky, a golden orb burning bright, whispering music of the Maghreb wind and Ali Farka Touré’s guitar wafting over all.
What a star, Ali Farka Touré was. My first listens, thanks Andy Kershaw, or Charlie Gillet’s chatter, patter, whatever, led me to London’s (now sadly online only) Stern’s Music store, selling music from the world over. It was radio, and Sterns, that brought me to the poet of the desert, a songsmith par excellence, Ali Farka Touré.
What a magnificent sound he produced, John Lee Hooker meets Duane Allman, or Ali ‘duets’ with any ‘70s guitar superstar. Tons have been written by musicologists, on the roots of the blues, from the Southern States to the bars of Chicago, out to Memphis and the pub backrooms of London or Birmingham.
Ali’s new album, ‘Voyageur’, is out in March with the first track from it, Safari is available now. As I listened, music’s memories, regrets, hopes, and plans made and missed out on, flooded my thoughts, Ali’s song did that. Bright lights, people drifted away, places, just too late to visit, charms and delights imagined, I know now vanished.
Ali’s music is rooted in those sun burnt lands, straddling South West Sahara, Mali, Niger, and Morocco, to the edge of Algeria and Libya. Years ago, evocation, imagination, and UK C4 documentaries wetted my travel appetites. Sadly friends, commitments, work, money, fears, left those mere aspirations. Hopes and dreams, ending all too often with, binned brochures, wistful promises of ‘next year’, and compensatory visits to Sterns for a consolation CD or two, or three. The Rough Guide to Desert Blues was a taster, a tapas to delights, never sampled on its ‘home turf’.
I made it once, to Marrakesh, and managed a train ride, humming “Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express” mid-'90s, whistle stops. Miles from Al’s home turf in Sahara’s deep, deep, South, beyond the out-of-bounds Spanish Sahara - seized by Morocco in ‘75. Mali, Niger, Tuareg and desert blues boys' home territories were distant, physically, culturally and economically. Yeup, I believed the “you’ll never make it out alive” narrative, and passed on a travel option back then.
It was only 20 years ago, and growing self confidence opened doors. But by then, huge swathes of the Sahara were facing serious economic problems, racial and religious tensions, pressure cooker social explosions. Travel, as they might say in East London looked "Well dodgy, mate”.
Too late for me, pronounced civil strife, conflict, war, rebellion, these places looked more dangerous than ever. Not the place for a lone, overweight, pensioner, who mumbles Spanish badly, to travel in search of music, already banned in many places.
One thing’s fairly certain, Ali is probably as popular as ever, earning more in royalties in London, New York and Tokyo, than in Tombouctou, or Bamako. As ever, there’s a fetishisation for other nation’s music here in the West. Yes I am guilty of that. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. Writing this I’m reminded of the ‘a prophet is without respect in his own land’ syndrome. I am reminded of a story, 552nd hand, from Paul McCartney, asked what he was most looking forward to seeing in the USA - Paul replied “Muddy Waters”. The interviewer inquired, “Where’s that, what’s there?” As Paul commented, some people don’t know their own history, perhaps that’s so with Ali, and Mali.
I can’t help feeling, for some that’s true, we love the older hero’s of other nation’s music. No misunderstanding please, I love music from other nations and continents, but I’m only too aware of my own prejudices in wanting ‘more of the same’ from my heroes. I have a nagging doubt there’s a lot of that, in the hearts of many of us western liberals, loving that music, worlds away from our own suburbs, and cherishing more of the same.
Which brings me to Ali’s latest release, Voyageur. The LP will be out in March and the first track Safari, which kicked this diatribe off is available now. It’s good, it’s familiar, but is it justice to the other musicians of Mali, forging new sounds, for a new audience, at home and across the globe? I don’t know. We decry or just generally are bored with our own musicians who don't give up and keep on clogging the airwaves.
But it’s made me replay long ago purchased compilation records, and wonder where are these players now? Have they survived drought, famine, AIDS, religious rigours, and armed conflict. I have the sense Ali’s music is from another place, obviously, but sadly from a time passed, along with the hope and spirit that imbued the music with its delights.
Ali Farka Touré , thanks for the doors opened, and the lights shone. This new release, Safari is a delightful reminder of all the good time.
Main image: Dave Peabody
Voyageur will be available on March 10th, from World Circuit Records