Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder
Once in a while, an album slips by you that you should have been listening to for the past twenty years. You finally come across it and after the first listen, you feel a swelling of regret in your chest for missing out on what is clearly an excellent collection of songs. Conversely, you get the elation and giddiness of discovering something new to massage your ears with. Talking Timbuktu is the result of the pairing of Malian singer/guitarist Ali Farka Toure and famed American roots/blues musician Ry Cooder. The combination of West African folk music and Cooder’s multi-instrumental expertise oozes with the genetic roots of American Blues.
The album kicks off with “Bonde,” a droning monochord vamp that establishes what the listener can anticipate from the rest of the album. Layered motifs and weaving melodies, coupled with call and response vocals, grant this song an entirety that is superior to the aggregate of its components.
The theme of many simple moving parts to create a multifaceted structure is widespread throughout the album. “Soukora,” “Kelto” and “Lasidan” use the same recipe of call and response vocals tied together with trance-like grooves and well placed guitar parts to prepare a sophisticated feast out of rudimentary ingredients.
Toure plays a traditional gourd fiddle called a Njarka on “Sega” and “Banga.” Accompanied only by percussion, these songs invoke North African and Middle Eastern sensibilities. These selections can sound significantly foreign and challenging to the Western ear at first, but after repeated listening, their feel and energy unmistakably shine through. “Sega” evokes images of a bustling marketplace with street performers, while “Banga” elicits visions of an assemblage of onlookers gathered in a circle, dancing in primal rhythm.
“Gomni” features Ry Cooder’s silky, singing slide guitar over a galloping rhythm. Ry’s slide playing is consistently melodic and fitting to the composition. His sense of arranging is virtually unparalleled. That’s probably why he was selected to produce the album. His vibrato is gooey and sweet like dark molasses, making each note decadently drizzle into your eardrums. The tremolo effect he uses on his guitar allows him to play shimmering chords and double stops, adding a glassy texture to his lines.
“Ai Du” is a slow, swampy minor blues that I can’t help but think tells the tale of shadowy events unraveling. With Gatemouth Brown on Viola, Ry Cooder on mandolin and slide guitar and Ali Farka Toure on Acoustic guitar, melodies leap back and forth, bolstering Toure’s mournful wailing.
The bridge to American blues music is nowhere more evident than in “Amandrai.” Eerily similar to a Muddy Waters vamp, this number is a bleak, melancholy excursion that induces notions of a desolate trek across the desert. Toure’s lamented chanting conveys a taxing journey with the pure emotional intensity of his voice. Toure sings in multiple African languages, compelling him to connect to Western audiences through the potency of his cadence and vocal inflections. One of the preeminent qualities of this album is that non Peul, Bambera, Songhai or Tamasheck speaking listeners must use their imagination to fill in the story of the songs. If you permit your consciousness to wander, the possibilities are fascinating and limitless.
The album culminates with “Diaraby,” and it brings the album to a beautiful finish. Toure and Cooder showcase their best playing on the album, having an intense conversation with their guitars by intertwining fills with tasteful lead lines and mimicking the vocal melody. Ry uses a tremolo effect again on his guitar to establish glistening, ringing chords to add color to the piece. The vocal arrangement illuminates the path from traditional African music to the pulpit in African American churches in the southern United States. It’s a sermon, complete with a fervent oration to the faithful and an impassioned response to the preacher.
When the hypnotic tracks of Talking Timbuktu finally cease, a reflection on the melodic expedition you’ve completed is inevitable. As these two sorcerers have conjured up a vision of the evolution of traditional North and West African music to American blues, the realization of the suffering and oppression that facilitated that progression is haunting. The concept of music as a catharsis and source of strength through nearly unbearable circumstances transcends cultures, and is palpable to anyone with an ounce of empathy. Listen to this album with an open mind, intent on nothing but losing yourself in the reverie of the passage from the drums and Njarka of Africa to the slide guitar of the Mississippi delta. The amalgamation of African and Western traditions achieved by these two masters demands it be a mandatory listen to anyone interested in blues/roots music.