Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

(b 1939, Mali; d there 6-7 March 2006) A self-taught Malian guitarist and songwriter who demonstrated the connection between West African traditions and the blues, carrying his music to a worldwide audience. In Mali he was a national hero; at the news of his death, government radio stations suspended regular programming to play his music.

Touré was his family's tenth child, and the first to survive infancy. Farka, a nickname, means 'donkey', an animal praised for its tenacity. Unlike many West African musicians, he was not born into a musical dynasty, but was drawn to music despite the wishes of his family. Hearing the music of spirit ceremonies, he taught himself to play the n'jurkle, a one-stringed West African lute, in 1950, then the n'jarka, a one-stringed fiddle, and later the n'goni, a four-stringed lute. Inspited by the Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba, he took up the guitar in the mid-1950s and joined a local band; in 1962 he became the leader of the Niafunke village cultural troupe, dedicated to preserving local culture. He sang in various West African languages — his own Sonrai as well as Songhai, Bambara, Peul, Tamasheck and others — reflecting the traditional foundations of the songs he wrote. His lyrics, in West African style, represented the conscience of a community, urging listeners to work hard, honor the past and act virtuously. It was said that he did not hear American music until 1968, the same year he attended the Bulgaria Arts Festival in Sofia.

In 1970 he moved to Bamako, the capital, where he became an engineer at Radio Mali and a frequent performer on the air. Six albums of music recorded at Radio Mali were released in France in the 1970s, and a compilation from these, Radio Mali on World Circuit, spread his fame more widely. In 1980, he returned to his hometown, Niafunke, and established a farm that he tended between musical engagements. He toured Africa widely, establishing a reputation across West Africa. In 1987 he performed in Britain and began recording for international release with Ali Farka Touré on World Circuit/ Nonesuch, followed by The River on Hannibal, African Blues on Shanachie and The Source '92 on World Circuit. He won Grammys for albums he made with Ry Cooder (Talking Timbuktu '94) and the Malian griot Toumani Diabaté (In the Heart of the Moon 2005). He also recorded with Taj Mahal.
 
After 2000 he toured less, and returned to his farm; he often said that he considered himself a farmer above all. In 2004 he was elected mayor of the 53 villages of the Niafunke region. He established the Ali Farka Touré Foundation, nurturing younger Malian musicians, and continued to perform in Mali. His last concert was in 2005 at a festival in Nice, France.