Why do tyrants always try to crush the arts? Because music and art are the most effective weapons we have against tyranny. “Pen and paper are the strongest, most powerful things in the world,” Tunisian songwriter and freedom fighter Emel Mathlouthi affirmed last week at her show at the Alliance Francaise; Malian guitar hero Vieux Farka Toure would no doubt agree. Wherever they’ve taken over, the Islamofascists have banned music in his native land; his response is a new album, Mon Pays (My Country). While Toure – the fortyish son of the legendary Ali Farka Toure – is known for his pyrotechnic live shows, his recent studio work has been pensive, subdued and largely acoustic. Concern for his home turf and his people there may be a factor. Toure’s dedication to the cause of peace is nothing new, evidenced by his collaboration last year with Israeli keyboardist/bandleader Idan Raichel, an effort that might well have earned Toure a death sentence in terrorist-controlled regions of Mali.
From an Anglophone point of view, writing about this album without taking into account the lyrics – sung in Toure’s local lingo – only covers half of the picture. But the music on this album stands on its own, as it does throughout Toure’s catalog – and if there’s any artistic community that needs the support of the west, it’s the Malians.
While most people associate Toure with desert blue bands like Tinariwen, his rhythms are more eclectic, and this album is no exception, a mix of swaying, hypnotic songs peppered with upbeat numbers. The jangly, loping opening track is a homage to Malian singer/guitarist Diack So, a contemporary of Toure’s father who drank himself to death. Keening riti fiddle doubles the guitar line, Toure playing the hypnotic, circular tune with a jangly chorus effect over the undulating beat of the calabash. The second track is a slowly swaying, electric call-and-response cover of Safare, written by the elder Toure, building to a fluid but edgy solo showcasing the younger guitarist’s signature hammer-on attack. The pensively catchy third song has resonant guitar that mingles with Sidiki Diabate’s rapidfire, rippling kora over a slinky, insectile scraper groove.
Toure’s voice takes on an especially somber, aching tone on Yer Gando, a warning to watch out for invaders hell-bent on stealing Mali’s treasures, material or otherwise. They pick up the pace with the bubbly, shuffling fifth track, a one-chord jam with some especially tasty high-voltage fills from the guitar. Kele Magni – whose theme is that Mali belongs to the people, not the invaders from the north – follows a catchy, apprehensive descending twin-guitar hook. The eight track is the closest to what westerners typically might call desert blues (a term that its practitioners view with considerable amusement, by the way), while the dirgelike concluding cut is the most rock-oriented. The album also includes two instrumentals that weave a delicate web of acoustic guitar and kora. We can all hope that the Malians stand their ground against the extremists and that there will one day be music everywhere in Mali – legally.