In Mali, when a family loses a child, by custom they give the next baby an unusual nickname. Ali Toure's mother had borne nine boys who died in infancy, so when she had her tenth she called him "Farka," which means "donkey." And the young Ali did turn out to be stubborn, bucking his country's caste system to take up music: In the southerly Wassoulou region of Mali, home to Oumou Sangare and Sali Sidibe, anyone could play, but elsewhere only the griot caste of the dominant Mande culture could be professional musicians. Toure lived in the north, and had been born into the Songhai culture. Along the banks of the Niger River people use the trance-inducing sounds of traditional single-string violin and lute, called njarka and njurkle, to commune with the river's spirits; when Toure was 13 those sounds possessed him, and despite his devotion to Islam the ancient religion of the river still infuses his music. He has mastered the njarka and njurkle--plus several other instruments, most notably the guitar--and in his lyrics he addresses the tensions between modern circumstances and traditional ways, singing in seven Malian languages. During the 70s, he recorded for the national radio station and made several LPs for a French label, but he didn't get much recognition abroad until the late 80s, when he toured Europe and released an eponymously titled all-acoustic solo album. Many critics declared him the missing link between West African music and the blues--and with his blend of intricate fingerpicking and keening vocals, he does sound like kin to Lightnin' Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. But tempting as such amateur anthropology can be, it obscures the singularity of his hypnotic guitar style, which evokes the flow of the Niger: even in Mali, no one else plays quite like him. Though in the early 90s a host of Westerners lined up to record with Toure--Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, members of the Chieftains--he concluded that working abroad threatened his connection to the source of his music. He retired to the family farm, and when after a five-year hiatus he decided to make another record, the studio came to him. The result, last year's Niafunké (Hannibal), weaves together yearning call-and-response singing, the interlocking rhythms of several hand drums, and Toure's resonant electric and acoustic guitars; njurkle and njarka etch incantatory patterns across the surface of the songs. At the same session Afel Bocoum, Toure's protege for over three decades and his opening act on this tour, recorded his debut album, Alkibar (Nonesuch). Stateside audiences have already had a chance to hear Bocoum's expressive singing and deft vocal arrangements on Toure's 1991 album The Source, but on his own disc he proves he's also an excellent acoustic guitarist and composer. This is Bocoum's Chicago debut and Toure's first appearance here in five years. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Mided.