Malian Magic with Vieux Farka Touré

When watching the Malian blues guitar virtuoso, Vieux Farka Touré, play his finger picking guitar live on stage one can’t help but think of American guitar legends BB King, John Lee Hooker and even Jimmy Hendrix. It’s mesmerizing, especially up close where I got to witness the mastery of his fingers strumming, picking and gliding his electric guitar.

Vieux Farka Touré was born and raised in Namfunke, Mali, and is the son of legendary blues guitarist, Ali Farka Touré, who was instrumental in introducing the “desert blues sound” to the world music scene in the 70’s and 80’s. I posed some questions to Vieux about his musical roots, his collaboration with American singer song-writer Julia Easterlin on his next album and the obstacles facing Malian musicians in a country recently threatened with an Islamic insurgency.

Christine Scott: When I looked your previous albums up on iTunes the categories that came up ranged from African, Blues, Funk, Rock, R&B and Soul. Has that always been your interest, to fuse traditional Malian guitar rhythms with all of these other genre's?

Yes, that has always been my interest. I like to bring in as many styles as I can to my music to keep it moving forward.

CS: I read that your father was very much against your pursuing a career in music. How were you able to pursue your passion and eventually get his blessing?

Once my father saw that I was very serious about being a musician and that I understood all of the sacrifices and the risks that I would face, he was happy to give me his blessing and even proud. This happened at the time that I recorded my first album, in 2005. I am lucky that this happened at that time, because Ali left this world just a few months after.

CS: Are you worried that the political situation in Mali and the rise of Islamic fundamentalists will impact the recording and production of Malian music? What is situation like now for artists in Bamako?

Right now the situation is OK for artists in Bamako, and for the people of Mali in general. But it is a very fragile situation and the country has a lot of very big problems, financially and politically. But, Mali is the strongest musical tradition in the world so I am not worried about the Islamists ruining that. It is something they can never defeat. This was the theme of my last album Mon Pays.

CS: You have a new album coming out in Sept, can you describe the style of "Touristes" and the messaging on it? How did the collaboration with Julia Easterlin come about?

Julia and I met through our manager, Eric. I wanted to do a project with a singer and so Eric put us together in a studio last year when I was coming through New York and it was instant magic between us. The name Touristes describes how me and Julia are taking a journey together into a new musical place for each of us. The style is a mix of her style and my own.

CS: Our website, Cultsha.com, is about highlighting artists who promote social consciousness through their music. Do you think that's important for artists to do and are there any social issues that you feel are important to spotlight right now, either in Africa, in Mali or on a global scale?

Yes, of course, as an artist from Mali I feel a deep responsibility to be an activist as well as a truth-teller and an ambassador for my country. In Mali the artists are like this. It is not just "oh baby, I love you baby". No. To be a musician means you are representing your people everywhere you go, and this is something that I take very seriously.

One group that maintains the traditional sounds of the Tuareg people of the Southern Sahara desert is Tramikrest. They mix traditional African music with Western rock and pop influences and sing in Tamashek. The Tuareg people have been trying to gain autonomy in a land ravaged by al-Qaida trained militias and their struggles are evident in their lyrics and songs. One doesn’t need to understand their language to comprehend their themes of hope and cultural identity. The haunting beauty of their electric guitars and percussive beats defies interpretation.

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