Ali Farka Toure; Musician From Mali

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Ali Farka Toure, a guitarist and singer from Mali whose music had strong parallels with American blues, died of bone cancer March 7 at his home in the Malian capital of Bamako. He was believed to be 66 or 67.

Mr. Toure, who considered himself primarily a farmer, won two Grammy Awards for his haunting and spirited recordings of the music of his West African homeland. Wearing brightly printed robes and sandals, he took his country's culture to Europe, Japan and the United States in tours during the past 20 years. He mixed native and western instruments and left audiences across the world marveling at the subtle power of his music.

With its stuttering guitar rhythms repeated over a single chord, half-spoken vocals and lively bursts of energy, his music reminded some of the Mississippi blues styles of John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside. In fact, when Mr. Toure first heard a Hooker recording in the 1960s, he thought he was hearing a form of Malian music. He once performed with Hooker in concert but always took pains to point out the differences between his music and that of his American counterparts.

"I am the root," he said. "They are the branches."

Mr. Toure spent most of his life in the remote Malian town of Niafunke, a 20-hour drive across the desert from the capital. He worked as a chauffeur, taxi driver, mechanic, riverboat pilot and sound engineer over the years but eventually became a farmer, raising cattle and growing rice and fruit. He became a prominent citizen and in 2004 was appointed mayor of his home town.

He often said he was retiring from music to devote himself to farm life, but he always returned to the stage and the studio. His most recent recording, "In the Heart of the Moon" (2005), won a Grammy last month for traditional world music album of the year.

"Music is not just for amusement," he said in 1995. "It should be used for spiritual purposes and to educate. In this way, I have many responsibilities to my family, to my village and to society."

The precise year of Ali Ibrahim Toure's birth is not known. In a 1993 interview, he said he was 55. At a concert at New York's Town Hall in 2000, he said he was 61.

In any case, he was born near Timbuktu, Mali, and was his parents' 10th child but the first to survive childhood. For that reason he acquired the nickname Farka, or donkey, for his stubbornness.

He was not a member of the traditional griot class of musicians and storytellers but nonetheless taught himself to play the gurkel , a single-string guitar, and the n'jarka , a single-string fiddle. Later, after hearing the Guinean musician Keita Fodeba, he learned to play guitar.

After Mali declared its independence from France in 1960, Mr. Toure became part of a state-sponsored musical group, Troupe 117, that was popular throughout the country. In the late 1960s, he began to listen in earnest to American artists, including Hooker, Otis Redding and Ray Charles, and found an affinity with the style if not always with the substance of their music.

"In what you call the blues, I have heard people singing of their hardships," Mr. Toure said, "but to me this is a very small thing to tell people of; it has no great significance."

His own songs tended to be about love, spiritual life and the land and rivers of Mali. He sang in nine African languages, always keeping the musical idioms of each style distinct.

"My music is an education, a history, a legend, an autobiography -- it all tells a valuable story of something true," he said. "Different songs are inspired by different ethnic groups. . . . Often if you try and sing a song in a different language, it will not work."

Mr. Toure recorded for French labels and began to perform in Europe in the 1980s. He reached the U.S. market in 1989 with a self-titled album. In 1992, he made a recording with American musicians Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, "The Source," which was No. 1 on Billboard's world music chart for 11 weeks. Mr. Toure teamed with Cooder on another album, "Talking Timbuktu," which won a Grammy award in 1995.

In recent years, when Mr. Toure grew reluctant to travel, he recorded in a mobile studio in Mali. Once, while driving to a recording session, Mr. Toure paused to shoot rabbits "for dinner," he said. He continued to perform in Africa and France until last year.

Survivors include three wives, 11 children and many grandchildren.

"Everyone has a responsibility to the community," Mr. Toure said. "As a musician, I have received a gift from God. It is my obligation to share this gift. We have a saying in Mali: Honey does not taste good in one mouth alone."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company