On the eve of his first UK tour for some time Rhythm Passport was privileged to interview one of the great ambassadors of Malian guitar, Vieux Farka Touré.
Still only in his mid-thirties Vieux Farka Touré has recorded eight albums to date. His second, Fondo, propelled him to fame when he was only twenty-eight, and he hasn’t looked back since.
But surprisingly Vieux Farka Touré didn’t take up the guitar until he was twenty, and even then it was in secret. This has to do with the fact that his father was of course the eminent Ali Farka Touré, one of Africa’s most famous musicians. This intriguing fact led us to begin our questions by asking Vieux if his father had wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a musician.
No, my father was very strongly opposed to me being a musician. It was only at the end of his life that he accepted that it was my destiny to follow him in music and to continue the legacy that he began. Ali had a difficult life and he encountered many bad situations and bad people in music. He was not educated in school, so he could not read contracts, and he was taken advantage of for that reason. He was often swindled by those that claimed to be working for him. So he became very upset with the music industry in general. This is why he did not wish for me to become a musician. He preferred that I join the military, where I could earn a steady and honest living. But I am not a soldier. I was born a musician.
Ali Farka Toure died when Vieux was about twenty-five years old. We wondered if at that point Vieux felt that he finally had his father’s blessing to go out and make music in his own way.
Yes, at the end of his life he accepted my path and he even began to mentor me about music and give me advice about how to conduct myself in the industry. Music has always been in my blood. When I began work on my first album Ali finally saw this, and he gave me his blessing to be a musician when he saw that this is where my heart was directing me. He recorded with me on my first album and in his final days he would lie with a stereo on his chest, playing the recordings and sharing them with whoever came to visit. It was very important for me to see that he was happy with the path I was walking as this gave me the confidence to deal with all the problems and difficulties of this business.
It must have been very difficult for the young man in these circumstances to make his own way. In fact, when he first started making music he was originally a drummer/percussionist with Mali’s Institut National des Arts. When he eventually made the guitar his instrument of choice there must have been huge expectations from people to live up to the name of his father.
Yes yes, of course. People in Mali like to talk. A lot! They like to gossip. Ali, he was a very big, important person for the people of Mali. So of course, when he died and people began talking amongst each other that the son of Ali was about to start a career in music, of course there were a lot of expectations. Not just this, but in my family there was immediately an expectation that I would fill the shoes of my father and provide for the whole family the way that he did. Of course for me this was a lot of pressure and very difficult. Imagine you are a young musician and all of a sudden there is a whole country expecting you to be like a legend, and a family of more than thirty people expecting you to provide for them with your music. So, as you can understand, music is not all fun and games for me. There is a heavy weight that I must carry with me everywhere that I go. Fortunately, I love to play music and I feel this weight lifted every time I am on stage.
Vieux’s first albums were produced by New Yorker Eric Herman. We wondered how the two happened to meet and whether this meeting was an important step in Vieux’s career.
I first met Eric when he came to Mali in 2003 as a university student. He came here to study music and his program was based at the Institut National des Arts, where I was also studying. So we became friends like this, you know, and began playing music a bit together. He used to come to my house to jam. He was a very big fan of Ali so for him this was a very important thing. Then two years later he returned to Mali and called me up, saying he wanted to produce an album for me. At this time I was playing in Toumani Diabate’s band and I was not thinking about having my own career, but he persuaded me to try it. He produced my first album and then he found a label to release it, organized a tour. He even played bass for me in the first years of my career. So I can say that it was he who began my career in international music. Now he is my manager and more than that he is like my brother. We are family – it is that kind of relationship. So yes, of course, meeting Eric and working with him was a very big step in my life.
Since his career took off, as well as releasing several albums in his own right Vieux has embarked on some fascinating collaborations with a range of interesting artists from very different musical backgrounds including Israeli keyboardist/producer Idan Raichel (a household name in his native country), South African-born singer Dave Matthews, Sidiki Diabate (of the great Malian kora playing Diabate family) and most recently American singer-songwriter Julia Easterlin. For this reason we were interested to find out what he thinks are the most important things he learned from the collaboration process.
The most important thing in any collaboration is to be patient. By this I do not just mean being patient with the other person, but to be patient with yourself. Often it will take time to understand the best way to fit into what the other person is doing, and you cannot be too rushed to make that happen or what you are doing will not be natural. You must try to open your mind as much as possible and just play. Just close your eyes, listen to the other person, and play. Do not think about it, because then you are out of the moment. The best moments in music, for me, happen when no one is thinking, and everyone is just playing without thinking.
One interesting thing we noticed about his collaborations – most noticeably on his most recent album Touristes with Julia Easterlin – is that although he is a singer himself he seems happy to sit back and let someone else play the role of vocalist. We wondered if that is because he thinks of himself first and foremost as a guitarist.
Yes, I am first a guitarist. For me, it is like I am singing when I am playing the guitar. The guitar is the main instrument and my voice is an instrument that accompanies this main instrument. Everyone loves listening to the singer but it is just another instrument. This is why I found it very interesting to work with Julia on this latest album, because she is a pure singer. I have done a lot of different things with my music but I do not consider myself a singer really, and I have never worked deeply with a singer before. So for me, this was a new experience.
We asked why they choose the title Touristes for this new album.
There are two reasons for this name. One is that it is a combination of our names, Touré and Easterlin. But there is also the significance of being like tourists in each other’s musical worlds. She is coming to explore my music and I am exploring her music, so we are like musical tourists for this project.
But on his upcoming UK tour Vieux will not be playing the music from his project with Julia Easterlin. We asked him why this is the case, and he explained that he has a new album project in mind that he is keen to take out on the road.
For my next project, I would like to do an album with my power-rock trio. I have played for years very often with just a drummer and bass player and to be honest, this is sometimes my favorite way to play. This is how I will play for the tour in the UK, and this is how I wish to record my next album. So yes, it will be more rock, more high energy, like ‘The Secret’ [his 2011 album], but even hotter! I want the new album to melt the speakers when you play it, it will be so hot (laughs).
We were keen to know how, as a songwriter, whether he feels he has an important message to get across.
You know, in Mali, the musician plays a lot of important roles. We are like journalists, telling the people what is happening in our society, in our politics, in the outside world. We are also like historians, as it is our responsibility to carry forward the stories and lessons of our ancestors. And of course we must entertain the people, bring them joy, inspire them, give them hope, make them dance and forget their problems. The musician is very important in Mali. This is why, in Mali, the tradition is not to just sing songs like “Hey baby, I love you, I miss you” and all that kind of thing. I have some love songs for my wife and for my family, but mostly my songs are about universal lessons of life. I talk about ways to behave in society, the importance of our culture, paying respect to women, to elders, and this kind of thing. For my last album before ‘Touristes’, ‘Mon Pays’, I had songs about the pride of our culture in Mali and the importance of solidarity between all the people of Mali to stay strong in the face of the problems brought to us by invaders. So you see, the lyrics of music in Mali are very, very important.
Vieux Farka Touré heads a project named ‘Amahrec Sahel’, which continues the humanitarian work begun by his father Ali. We asked him how important is it for him to put something back into his community.
This is extremely important to me. Mali is a very poor country. Everyone knows this. So as a musician from Mali who goes to tour around the world, it is very important that I use my position to better the situation for my community as much as I can. My father was a hero of Mali because he was always thinking of the people first, not himself. I am trying to follow this example. This is true wealth, to give to your community and to give some people a chance to make their own way in life. Mali is my home. It is my heart. Whenever I am not in Mali, it is like I am living without my heart. I travel all over the world, sometimes months at a time, but I will always return to Mali.