Monday, June 1, 2015

Excerpt from Jahtigui: the Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure, 'Defenders of the Faith (pp.10-14)

It is 2002 and I am in Niafunke to record an album called “Mississippi to Mali”, a collaboration with Ali Farka. It is March, one of the hottest months of the year. One day I decide to take a walk around town after eating lunch. It is a dry, cloudless day. The unpaved streets explode in clouds of ne dust every time a car, motorcycle or donkey cart passes by. I can taste it as it mixes with the scent of cooking from unseen, mud-brick courtyards and distant brush res. I see the tents of local Tuaregs, their occu- pants resting languidly in the shade. A small assortment of goats, chickens and donkeys amble about, going nowhere fast. It is as if they too are trying to preserve their energy as they navigate the desert sand under the hot sun. I walk into a small store owned by Tuareg merchants. There are two young men inside, one behind the counter of the sparsely decorated interior. One is dressed in the tradi- tional blue turban and long boubou, while the other wears a western collared shirt and pants. They look like they are related, with their olive skin, straight brown hair and seri- ous, somber faces. This store is housed inside an old ship- ping container. I look on the walls and see the basic staples of canned foods, personal care products, simple household items and the ubiquitous boxes of imported Chinese ‘gun- powder’ green tea. There is even a brand, “Tuareg” which comes in a small, green, cube-shaped box. The drawing on the outside depicts two blue-turbaned men mounted on camels with a panorama of endless dunes stretching out behind them. On the box it says “qualite superior...produit de chine.” 

The young men give an understated response to my greetings, their eyes showing no sign of pretense or smile. They would win any staring contest with their stoic demeanor. They are matter-of-fact in their interactions, showing no outward motion or unnecessary chatter.  Looking me over, they ask where I am from. I tell them I live in Virginia, USA and they are cordial but uninterested. There is one long swathe of midnight-black fabric. They catch me looking at it with some interest. I don’t even have to point to it. Within seconds it is unfold- ed before me to examine and I begin to negotiate a price. Seeing that I am a foreigner, they give an extremely high rst price, an amount that is much more than the average Malian would imagine paying. I do my best to bring them down, with little success. These are typical of the turbans seen throughout the desert, worn not only by Tuaregs but also Songhai, Peul, Bambara and other ethnic groups for protection against the harsh elements and for warmth in the cold desert night. As we negotiate back and forth I see another advantage to the turbans: they cover the entire face except the eyes, hiding emotion and expression. This makes the deal less friendly and more like straight business.

In Africa, negotiation is a game played every day, like poker. Also like poker, the ability to hide one’s emo- tions during the game is a prime advantage. I haven’t made any real progress negotiating with these stone-faced brethren. As I am about to pay, I hear a familiar voice at the doorway. It is Ali Farka. He is all smiles and warmth and greets us all. He enters the small, dusty shop, immediately buys the black turban and gives it to me as a gift. His very presence has changed the mood inside this tiny shop. I see that the Tuareg brother wearing the tur- ban has unwrapped it, showing his face. Both he and his brother are now grinning happily. I have never seen such a quick transition from stone-cold poker face to warm smiles as I did on that hot day. That day I learned that there was something special about Ali Farka Toure in the way he could make people comfortable. He did it with humor, simplicity, kindness, and a spirit of comraderie that you could hear in his voice when he spoke. He was both noble and a man of the people. He didn’t like fancy things nor was he ostentatious. He lived a simple life and he worked hard for his family, his culture, his community and his na- tion. The proof is in his music and the power of the words that he sings.

I recall a hot day in the courtyard of the Hotel Campe- ment, owned by Ali and operated by his cousin Berte Toure. I am here with a recording engineer who has traveled with me from Virginia. We sit on white plastic chairs listening to hip-hop on a portable cassette player with three young Bambara men from Niafunke. There is a doorway to the courtyard of the hotel in front of which people on the street would pass to and fro. A few passersby stop and reverse to get another curious look at these two Black dreads from the USA bobbing their heads in unison with the local youth. The song, “Oochie Wally”, by Nas’ brother Jungle, is a hit in the US. But hearing it in a remote desert town on the banks of the river Niger redenes the meaning of ‘hit’. The doorway is like a window to the outside world of the dusty streets of Niafunke. Watching the doorway as the world passes by gives us a brief snapshot in time as people, goats, donkeys and chickens walk back and forth. Small brown and multicolored margoya lizards scurry across the dry ground and on the walls, stopping to do push-ups as they inate air sacs in their throats. A slightly-built Tuareg man wearing ip-ops and a blue turban with traditional shirt and pants stops in the doorway and then comes back a few minutes later to get a second look. He walks into the courtyard, greets everyone with one, quiet word, and sits down. This Tuareg brother is checking us out.

The desert sun beams down on us all. Intense brown eyes look us over from behind the Turban that cover his young but weathered face. He sits quietly for awhile, observing the strangers who have come from so far away. Then he begins to bob his head to the boom-bap just like the rest of us. No manual necessary. After a while he says another quiet word and exits the doorway through which he had come. Hip-hop is big everywhere you go in Mali, just as it has taken over the rest of the globe. Here, this Black art revolution from the south Bronx is loved by the youth like a long lost twin brother. Africa is the cradle of the beat and the spoken word, and hip-hop is but the latest manifestation of the ancient tradition of rhythm and rhyme. It comes from a different recent history, as the culmination of Africans’ exodus from the Jim Crow and lynch- ings of the the southern states to the discrimination, crime, and economic desolation of the inner cities. But it can still come home to Africa and be recognized like a prodigal son. Africans recognize that Black music is African at its core; they love the music regardless of style or national origin. In the near future this music will be under attack in the land of its birth.