It’s a disservice to write off the Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure as simply a blues musician who happens to come from Africa. He understands the blues and has listened to John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and the whole canon; his guitar accompaniments borrow liberally from the folk-blues trickbag. But when he tackles even traditional 12-bar, his serpentine voice and understated phrasing create a bridge between worlds — linking American blues conventions to their antecedents in African chant and ritual.
Born in 1939 in Northern Mali, Toure first gained international recognition on the European festival circuit in the late ’80s but didn’t attract US attention until the 1990 release of African Blues — like its eponymous predecessor, a solo acoustic recording. The blunt, lonesome vocals echo the plainspoken manner of Delta storytellers, but the forms are less familiar: many of the selections are built on droning single chords that become enchanting through repetition.
That same hypnotic quality opens Toure’s more expansive 1990 album, The River. The first track, “Heygana,” is a lilting, prayerful dirge that emulates the steady flow of a river. Still playing largely solo, Toure has help here from members of the Chieftains, whose contributions make “Kenouna” a multi-culti masterpiece.
The Source is the first recording to feature Toure’s Groupe Asko, which includes hand drums, calabash and vocal chorus. The album also has guest stars — among them, Taj Mahal and tabla master Nitin Sawney. Though it continues Toure’s unique conversational approach to the blues, The Source is most notable for the way it challenges the singer to move beyond blues (“Hawa Dolo”) and to eschew simple guitar riffing for more intricate single-note lines (“Roucky”).
If prior collaborations demonstrate a certain cautious openness, Talking Timbuktu, with Ry Cooder, shows that Toure can stretch with the best of ’em. Cooder pulls Toure in a more Eastern, raga-styled direction, turning his perpetually pained voice into a powerful melody instrument. The journey begins with Cooder’s electric and slide guitars joining two-thirds of Groupe Asko (Hamma Sankare and Oumar Toure), but soon branches out: The heatedly rhythmic “Amandral” features drummer Jim Keltner and bassist John Patitucci, while “Ai Du” finds Texas guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown adding (of all things) a searing viola solo. The result is absolutely transfixing music that defies glib categorization.
Toure died in Mali in March 2006 after a long illness.