Sidi Toure: Intense and Hypnotic Uptown

by delarue

Monday night at Marcus Garvey Park, Malian songwriter Sidi Toure treated the crowd to a hypnotically pulsing set of songs from his latest album Koima. Toure hails from the Songhai region of Mali, to differentiate him from his Tuareg brethren and their desert blues. Toure sang in his native tongue and doesn’t speak much English, but in French he proved to be articulate and intense, with a sardonic, dry wit. He quickly dismissed the “Songhai blues” label: “Blues this, blues that – what we’re doing isn’t blues,” he reminded the crowd. Playing acoustic guitar, he held down the songs’ central riffs with a steady forcefulness, something you have to do if you’re running a hook over and over for five minutes or more. Toure was joined by a nimble lead player who ran his guitar through a watery flange effect, plus a drummer on boomy calabash and a riti (one-string fiddle) player who was out of tune until the set’s third song, adding an unexpected but actually enjoyable microtonal bite to the songs’ hallucinatory ambience. Obviously, that wasn’t intended, simply a consequence of the band not being able to hear much of themselves onstage.

One by one, Toure explained the songs’ lyrical content: familiar themes ranging from guy-meets-girl, to a “song for lovers all over the world,” to more pensive, socially aware material. After opening with a slow, methodical two-chord vamp, they picked up the pace with what was essentially a briskly shuffling one-chord jam, the lead guitar ringing out percussively over Toure’s precise riffage and the thud of the calabash. They finally hit a genuine American-style blues riff on the third song, as the riti, now in tune, swirled and dove; a little later on, they launched into the kind of swaying triplet rhythm that’s common in desert blues.

A flurry of fast, jangly lead guitar kicked off a dance number that Toure used to try to get the crowd going, with mixed results. He had better luck getting a clapalong started, moving from a skeletal minor-key intro to a simple call-and-response tune driven by a catchy, repetitive bassline. The set reached a peak with variations on a roadhouse boogie riff, with a rapidfire, hammering guitar solo contrasting with the gracefulness of the riti. They closed with a bouncy number that could have been an Irish reel in a past life: it was the perfect choice of afterwork show on an unexpectedly cool, sleepy Monday evening. For Toure’s band, this was their American debut, although he’s been here before and will hopefully be here again: watch this space.