Vieux Farka Toure - Out of Africa
Vieux Farka Toure reels off a list of plans and recent experiences, weighs them against what might have been and pronounces that life is good.
There was a meeting this summer with former James Brown horn master Pee Wee Ellis when Vieux and his band had a great time playing JB classics. He has a soundtrack with Ry Cooder in the pipeline and a track on an imminent U2 covers album. He’s being doing some gigs with Saharan gypsies Tinariwen, has met and was impressed by Americana singer-songwriter Dierks Bentley, and bumped into South African poet of the people Vusi Mahlasela. Oh and there’s the Heatwave tour with Brazilian singer Nina Miranda’s new band, Zeep, that brings Vieux to Glasgow this weekend, which is "really cool."
None of this would have happened, of course, had Vieux done his father’s bidding and joined the army.
His father, the Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Toure, despite the Grammy winning successes he enjoyed after his late 1980s discovery led to world-wide attention, knew all about the struggles a musician faces and did his best to stop Vieux following in his footsteps.
"I always loved music," says Vieux. "We heard American music on the radio all the time as well as Malian music, and even as a child I dreamed of being a great guitarist. But when I spoke about becoming a musician, my father sent me to work on a farm with a family friend."
Vieux isn’t his real name (which is Boureima) but it’s common practice in Mali, where French is the official language, to nickname a boy named after his grandfather "Old." Vieux’s grandfather had been an army officer, so having been named after him, Vieux was expected to emulate him.
In the event, the family friend with the farm sympathised with Vieux’s dislike of the army and helped him to register for the entry test to the conservatoire in l’Institut National des Arts in the Malian capital, Bamako, where Vieux began studying in 2001. Ali wasn’t best pleased but five years on, not long before he died last year, and an accommodation having been reached, he played lead guitar on some tracks on Vieux’s self titled first album.
Vieux didn’t grow up with Ali on the family farm – one of twelve siblings, he spent his childhood with an uncle near Mopti – and although he knew his father was away abroad a lot, he didn’t pay much attention to how famous he was until he moved to Bamako.
"I was about sixteen then and quickly realised that everyone there, and it seemed everyone in Mali, knew Ali Farka Toure," he says. "When he won his first Grammy it was like a national holiday."
By this time Vieux was playing calabash and percussion with his cousin Afel Bocoum’s group. The guitar, which is now his first instrument, didn’t figure until he enrolled at the National Institute.
"While I was studying I started to listen closely to jazz, rap, rock, reggae and a lot of my father’s music," he says. "Carlos Santana and Ry Cooder are also big favourites, so the guitar seemed a natural choice. But my biggest influence would have to be the kora player Toumani Diabete, who has been a family friend for years. It was Toumani who persuaded my father that I could make a go of music and my father asked him to supervise my career. Toumani has always been like a father to me. He has helped me enormously in all my professional decisions. He was the one who negotiated my album contract but he also takes care of me and my family too."
Vieux joined Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra while still at the conservatory in Bamako. He turned professional in 2004 and toured South Africa and France with his father. He also added calabash and backing vocals to Ali’s Savane album. Working alongside his father he was able to see how hard Ali worked and to understand why Ali had been so set against him becoming a musician.
"Ali worked and worked and worked and then worked some more, always honing his craft," he says. "I want to do that, too, and if possible be even better than him."
Although rhythmically and melodically they sound in keeping with his desire for audiences to be happy, Vieux’s songs tend to have a serious lyrical content. He isn’t interested in telling the world about his love life when, for instance, his country is enduring what amounts to a malaria epidemic. His CD carries a message about the seriousness of this situation and he is donating 10% of the proceeds from CD sales to Bee Sago, a UNICEF-affiliated organisation, towards the distribution of treated mosquito nets to children and pregnant women in his home town, Niafunke.
He is also supporting Mali’s cotton industry in the face of competition, through cheaper labour, from China, by kitting out his band in stage clothes made from Malian cotton.
This is, he says, a gesture against globalisation, not an attempt to become a hero in Mali. As the son of a national figure, it’s difficult enough to succeed in his own right and he wants to be judged on his music, not his actions or his parentage.
"Following in the footsteps of a legend like Ali is impossible," he says. "But he was Ali, and I am Vieux and I have my own music to create and keep working on. Music is playing in my head all the time, and even on the road I have songs, new riffs, coming out all the time. We sometimes sit at sound check and work on new songs, or in the room on a day off. It’s pretty constant."
From The Herald, November 22, 2007.