Ali Farka Toure, 67; Malian Guitarist Was Hailed in U.S. as the ‘Desert Bluesman’

Times Staff Writer

Before the blues arrived in the Mississippi Delta, it lived in the desert of Mali, West Africa, and was known by a different name.

The sound of Ali Farka Toure was like the DNA that proved the paternity of the music, a link between the people and places that claimed it as their own.

“I’ve stayed in the tradition, and they’ve evolved in exile,” he said of African American bluesmen who observers wrongly assumed had influenced his playing. “It’s very important that these musicians go back to Africa to see where the music comes from, because in that way they’ll find the origins, the roots of their music.”


Toure, the two time-Grammy Award winner, the musician dubbed “the desert bluesman” and hailed by many as Africa’s finest guitarist, died in his sleep Tuesday of bone cancer at his home in Mali. Though Toure did not know the exact date of his birth, he believed his age to be 67.

“It’s impossible to calculate the importance of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and now Ali Farka Toure,” Bonnie Raitt, who played with Toure, told The Times on Tuesday. “He’s a giant.”

News of his death came as friend and executive producer Nick Gold was set to travel to Mali to deliver a Grammy Award that Toure and fellow musician Toumani Diabate won last month for “In the Heart of the Moon,” said Dave McGuire, spokesman for World Circuit Records, Toure’s London-based label.

The death of Mali’s beloved son -- a farmer turned musician and cultural ambassador, who was later appointed mayor of his village -- was the cause for mourning: Radio and television stations played his music.

The Malian president was expected to participate in a tribute to Toure at the musician’s house, McGuire said. Toure is survived by a wife and many children.

Guitarist Ry Cooder, who collaborated with Toure on a Grammy-Award winning CD “Talking Timbuktu,” said Toure carried a sense of connection with the past, one that guided rather than limited his music.

He played an instrument known as a djerkel, a one-string guitar, and played traditional music on an electric guitar.

He was “highly conscious of the presence of the ancestors,” Cooder said. “I asked him one time ... ‘Especially when you’re playing music, where are they?’ He said, ‘They’re just behind me and above my head.’ I said, ‘How many?’ He said, ‘A thousand years of ancestors.’ ”

Ali Ibrahim Toure was born in 1939, in the village of Kanau in northwest Mali, the 10th son of his mother but the first to survive infancy. For his strength and tenacity, for surviving, the family nicknamed him “Farka,” which means donkey.

If Toure had abided strictly by tradition and culture, he might have never touched an instrument. Born into a noble family, he was expected to become a farmer or an artisan. As a boy he farmed and was an apprentice to a tailor, but music was his calling; the spirit ceremonies in villages along the banks of the Niger River, the sound of the instruments, mesmerized him.

When he was 12, he made a djerkel and taught himself to play. It was the spirits, he later said, who gave him the gift of his talent. Years later, a performance by Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba changed his life: “That’s when I swore I would become a guitarist. I didn’t know his guitar, but I liked it a lot. I felt I had as much music as him and that I could translate it.”

Under a government program to promote national culture, Toure worked with an art troupe, composing, playing guitar and singing. He earned a reputation as a traditional musician in the 1960s, playing the flute and n’goni, a traditional instrument, on Radio Mali, and later guitar. Eventually he sent his recordings to the Son Afric record company in Paris.

By the late 1980s, Toure was playing for European and U.S. audiences -- and though his repertoire included much more than the music that earned him the moniker “desert bluesman,” it was that sound that startled listeners and drew comparisons to the likes of John Lee Hooker.

“He was the first guy to really give us sort of the African take on the blues and give us a glimpse of where the blues comes from,” said Tom Schnabel, producer of Cafe L.A. on KCRW-FM (89.9) and program director for World Music for the L.A. Philharmonic.

Though a fan of blues and soul music, he was not, he said, influenced by the music; he did, however, recognize the sound as belonging to Mali.

“I just was knocked over by the obvious roots of the blues,” Raitt said.

The sound that usually is associated with sadness, longing and grief, in Toure’s hands is “very soul-connecting. It’s erotic and spiritual at the same time,” Raitt said.

For Toure, the substance of the music was “more important than the formation of the song, the melody or the rhythm.”

“My music is an education, a history, a legend, an autobiography. It tells a valuable story of something true,” he told The Times in 1993.

His 1994 collaboration with Cooder, “Talking Timbuktu,” helped expand the U.S. public’s awareness of Toure’s music, Raitt said. It earned a Grammy Award.

The unique sound was a result of his willingness to take traditional music and push it forward, layering his own personality.

With his success, Toure could have left Mali and lived well in Paris, said Nnamdi Moweta, host of Radio Afrodicia on KPFK-FM (90.7).

Instead, his fame helped him help others. He took care of many people in his village and was deeply proud of and concerned about his nation.

“People looked at him like a peacemaker,” during a 1999 conflict in Mali, Moweta said. “He was singing in all the people’s languages: Songhai, Fulani and Tamashek. He used the music as a weapon to bring peace. People listened, and at that time that was what was needed, for people to listen.”