Ali Ibrahim Touré was born in the village of Kanau, near the Niger River, Mali, in 1939. His name Farka was bestowed because he was the tenth child of his parents, but above all the first to have lived beyond childhood. Farka means "donkey", and is a symbol of physical strength and endurance. Ali Farka Touré's family is of noble origin, and belongs to the Arma race, which comes from the Songhaï. His father, a soldier, fought in the French army during the Second World War, and lost his life. After the war, the family settled in Niafounké, 200 km south of Timbuktu, a village (even though there were 20,000 inhabitants) where Ali Farka Touré still lives today.
Ali did not go to school. In this farming region, his education took place in the fields. But music, ever present in the common cultural life, did not leave the child indifferent. However, music was not a tradition in his family, far from it. So when Ali showed an interest, his parents were not particularly happy. Still, Ali was fascinated by instruments from his early childhood. The gurkel, a small traditional guitar, the njarka, the people's violin, the peul flute or the ngoni 4-string lute were all interesting. He trained in guitar with his master, Mamby Touré. The real revelation was in 1956, when the young Ali went to see the Guinea musician Fodeba Keita. He then realised that his life would be in music. However, Ali was at the time a taxi driver, and, after a time spent as a chauffeur in Guinea, he returned to Niafounké to be a chauffeur for a government department. Then he worked for the dispensary, where one of the nurses had a guitar, which he had bought by mail order from a French magazine. Ali borrowed it in exchange for running errands. After all, he would do anything to be able to play his favourite instrument.
In addition to playing instruments (guitar, accordion, and percussion), Ali began to compose following traditional themes. Then, a meeting with the Mali writer Amadou Hampaté Bâ sharpened his taste for writing. They became friends and the writer was charmed by the young man's curiosity and culture, despite his lack of formal education. At the end of the fifties, Ali Farka Touré followed Hampaté Bâ through Mali with a Nagra (microphone) in his hand, to record many musical sources in his country.
In 1960, Mali declared its independence. The new government set up official groups, each representing a region. It was at this time that Ali Farka Touré began his musical career. He even became manager of his group, Troupe 117, with which he worked on an ambulance-boat. Then they went on tour to the various Mali festivals and competitions, in which they often shone, especially Mopti festival which they won.
It was in April 1968 that Ali Farka Touré bought his very first guitar, in Sofia, Bulgaria. Now nearly 30, Ali was making his first journey outside Africa, for the International Arts Festival. But the same year, the regional bands were disbanded. Two years later, he joined the Radio Mali orchestra, at the same time working as a sound engineer. This made him familiar with studio techniques. Years later, he paid homage to this radio station in an album named after it. He worked at Radio Mali until 1973, when it was closed by the Mali government.
Towards the end of the sixties, he also discovered American black music in general, and the blues in particular. It was an absolute revelation. Ali was particularly keen on John Lee Hooker, whose music he compared to that of the Tamascheck people in north Mali.
After performing in groups for more than ten years, Ali Farka Touré finally went solo. He gave many concerts throughout West Africa, and his knowledge of some ten languages allowed him to adopt many traditional styles.
It was not until 1976 that he brought out his first record, "Farka". This was recorded and produced in the Radio Mali studios, and was a huge success for the 37-year-old artist. Amadou Hampaté Bâ, still a close friend, persuaded him to accompany him to France the same year. He spent several months in France and brought out several records on the Sonodisc label. But he was not really tempted to stay there and returned to Mali, where he was a star much in demand.
The eighties passed in a whirl of concerts and some recordings. But his career took a new turning when in 1987, Ali Farka Touré began his very first European tour. He even played in a Wembley stadium festival before an audience of 18,000 people! He went on to tour the rest of Europe, the United States, and Japan. The West was in the middle of its passion for World Music, and Ali Farka Touré's talent found a huge audience outside Africa, among both the public and professionals.
His international success brought him a contract with the World Circuit label, the firs record being "10 Songs From The Legendary (Songs from Mali)", closely followed by the album "Ali Farka Touré". The label seized upon the artist's incredibly rich repertoire and at the same time Sonodisc re-published the old LPs on CD.
From the river to its source
Despite his international success, Ali Farka Touré spent more time on his Mali farmland than he did in the West. One reason for this is his passion for farming and his personal investment in great agricultural irrigation projects. The father of many children, Ali possesses 350 hectares of land, mostly rice fields, in his native Niafounké.
Nevertheless, he returned to the centre of the World Music stage in 1990 with his album "The River" and the following year with "The Source". On the latter he sang a duo with American blues singer Taj Mahal.
Ali Farka Touré was now one of the biggest stars of African music, both on his own continent and in the West. The man who said of American blues music "I am the root and the trunk, all they have is the branches and the leaves", had the opportunity to play with John Lee Hooker in summer 91. Their highly symbolic duet represented the long road taken by African music over the centuries. But his greatest international success came when the album "Talking Timbuktu" came out in 93, based on the mythical theme of Timbuktu. This work, full of blues themes, was the result of collaboration with the American guitarist Ry Cooder. The critics were over the moon and the album, recorded in Los Angeles, won the Grammy Award, the supreme prize of the recording industry.
Apart from a few performances in Paris, at the New Morning in 1991 or the Passage du Nord Ouest in 92, Ali Farka Touré also played on many stages, such as Dakar in April 95 at the Gilles Obringer open air theatre (named after the RFI presenter who died in 1994) or Nantes, France, in July 95, where he defended Mali culture alongside Salif Keïta.
Ali Farka Touré's 96 album "Radio Mali" is a compilation of former songs. Entirely sung in Songhaï, Peul or Tamaschek, the 16 tracks are accompanied only by his (almost) solo guitar. The connections between American Blues and the sounds of the Sahel are clearly apparent in this finely chiselled production.
But in 1997, Ali declared that he wanted to retire from the stage to devote himself to farming in his village 200 km from Timbuktu. The information was even broadcast by SYFIA (Système Francophone d'Information Agricole, the French-speaking Farming News). The man who says "it is written that I am an artist on my identity card, but in fact I am a farmer", announced his intention to provide work to young people in his region to stop them from abandoning rural areas.
He is also becoming involved in producing young artists, and created a studio at Bamako called Emi Cassette. It was, moreover, he who backed Rokia Traoré, who won the "Découverte Afrique RFI" prize in 97.
After Toure's shock announcement in 1997 (when the singer declared that he was going to retire from the music business and devote himself to farming), Touré made a welcome U-turn two years later, returning to the music scene with a new album in June '99. Touré's new album, which featured strong blues influences, included hard-hitting social tracks about apartheid, education and justice as well as more personal songs about the joys of working the land.
The fact that the album was recorded in a mobile studio meant Ali Farka Touré was able to work at home in Mali. In fact, the singer was increasingly torn between his music and the work that his farm in Mali involved. In spite of his busy schedule, Ali nevertheless found time to perform a short series of concerts and also appeared at the Essaouira Festival (in Morocco) in June 2000. The following month Ali went on to bring the house down at the La Villette Jazz Festival in Paris. But in August the singer announced he was giving up his music career in order to devote himself to his farming activities in Mali.
Even if Ali retires from the music scene completely, he will continue to be one of the best-known and, indeed, most popular African artists in the world today.
In 2002, Ali went on to make an appearance on the silver screen, starring in two different feature films: "Ali Farka Touré - Le Miel n'est jamais bon dans une seule bouche" and "Et je chanterai pour toi." The latter featured Ali’s compatriot, the guitarist Boubacar Traoré, in the main role. Malian blues stars went on to become a major source of inspiration in the film world, in fact. Shortly after the release of these films, the American director Martin Scorsese filmed Ali Farka Touré for his blues documentary "Du Mali au Mississippi" released in 2004.
Despite having announced his retirement from the music scene to farm his ancestral lands, Ali Farka Touré continued to make occasional forays back on stage – much to the delight of fans! In 2003, he performed at the “Festival in The Desert“, staged in the Sahara, north of Timbuktu. Then, in January 2005, he re-emerged in Brussels for a concert that coincided with the release of "Red & Green" (a double album comprising "La Drogue" and "Sidi Gouro", originally released as LPs in 1984 and 1988).
Now a farmer and mayor of Niafunké, he nonetheless found it hard to give up music altogether. In 2003, he performed at the Festival in the Desert, north of Timbuktu. The following year, for the first time in fifteen years of partnership with Nick Gold, Ali Farka Touré sent the American producer some new recordings. Gold jumped on a plane to meet the artist in Mali: "In the Heart of the Moon" was recorded in three two-hour sessions in a mobile studio in a Bamako hotel.
To begin with, Ali Farka wanted to record a single duet with his compatriot Toumani Diabaté, the well-known kora player. Ultimately he ended up recording an entire new album, with contributions from the guitarist Ry Cooder and Cuban bass player Cachaito Lopez. The album came out in July 2005 and sold well. In the same month, the Malian guitarist performed at the Nice Jazz Festival. Earlier in the year, he had also agreed to play in Brussels for the release of "Red & Green", comprising the two albums "La Drogue" and "Sidi Gouro", originally released as LPs in 1984 and 1988 respectively.
In February 2006, together with Toumani Diabaté, the Malian bluesman received another Grammy Award when their joint album "In the Heart of the Moon" won Best Traditional World Music Album of the Year.
Ali Farka Touré died on 7 March 2006, aged 67, after a long battle against cancer. He was buried in his home village of Niafunké. Mali was plunged into mourning with radio stations suspending regular programming to play his songs. President Amadou Toumani Touré also paid a poignant tribute to the nation's favourite musical son.