In Africa you rarely know how and when things will happen. You may plan to take a trip, but the boat is not running. Maybe it sunk. Maybe it’s broken. You may think you are going to leave by 10AM, but the car is not filled with passengers. Maybe it’s full, but now it won’t start. You learn to accept failure simply as an event. No attachments, no sadness, no frustration, no anger. This is Africa, right Shakira?
So when a sword-wielding man adorned in animal skins said he could introduce me to Vieux Farka Toure, I was naturally skeptical. Maybe he could. Or maybe he does not know Vieux Farka Toure. Maybe Vieux Farka Toure is on tour. Maybe Vieux Farka Toure doesn’t like random Americans imposing on him and his family.
Hamadou, why do you have a sword? For security. Can you really introduce me to Vieux Farka Toure? Of course. Hamadou retrieved his identification card. Place of Birth: Niafunke, Mali. Niafunke is the village of Ali Farka Toure. I knew this. The late Ali Farka famously resisted living in Bamako. One of the most prolific guitarists in Mali, he won Grammys and toured the world, but he preferred village life above all. He named an album Niafunke as a tribute.
Ali Farka died in 2006 of bone cancer. The funeral was delayed by a massive sandstorm and for all we know that might have been Ali reasserting his earthly presence. He held syncretic Islamic and animist beliefs, considered himself a mechanic and technician before a musician, and once said that if you played with his signature open G tuning after midnight, you would wake unwanted spirits. His music is gorgeous, hypnotic, and haunting. He is dearly missed.
His son is Vieux Farka Toure and he is every bit as skilled with a guitar. He most recently played at the World Cup in South Africa. In a few days, he begins a US tour with Taj Mahal. I have seen him twice in Washington, DC. During the more stripped down songs you could hear the crowd collectively gasp when he ripped off a line on his guitar. Both times I left stunned.
I knew Vieux lived in Bamako. I wanted to meet him. It seemed like a long shot. He could have very well been on tour. But even if he was around, I didn’t have any contact that knew him or where he lived. Then I met Hamadou, ever smiling, sword-carrying, drinking, repeating Inshallah. For three days, Hamadou called me each morning to say “we go to vieux today.” Then he called later to say “tomorrow.” This is Africa.
On the fourth day, he called and said “we go to vieux today.” Then he showed up at my hostel. “We go to Vieux today.” I still had my doubts. We took a taxi across town and ended up in a quiet neighborhood away from central Bamako. We stopped at a large compound and Hamadou began a typical series of greetings with the gentlemen out front. I did the same with my limited Bambara. We took a seat in the shade of a baobab and waited for the Chef de la Maison. I was not yet convinced we were actually at Vieux’s house. The Chief of the House was an old man named Omar. We greeted each other and then Hamadou talked to Omar in Bambara. “Vien” – come. We were entering the compound.
Inside, there were close to forty people in the courtyard. Some praying, some drinking tea, some sitting on rugs and talking. Omar told us to wait in the courtyard. Two darling girls brought us plastic chairs three times their size and we sat. After twenty minutes or so, Hamadou decided to take matters in his own hands. “But Omar told us to wait here…” Hamadou led me into the house and told me to wait for him in a hallway. I poked my head in a room that had ten women and ten suckling babies. I sheepishly turned around only to hear ten women yell “Vien! Vien!” I returned to the doorway, had a conversation in French and Bambara while trying to prevent my eyes from settling on an exposed breast. Was this a Fela Kuti situation – did Vieux have ten wives? I would later find out that they were visitors, mostly family. The women were smiling and laughing. I was enchanted. Hamadou steered me away from the room and back to the courtyard.
Hamadou is on the left. Omar on the right brandishing Hamadou’s sword and what was supposedly Vieux’s gun. At this point I was simply enjoying the company of Hamadou and Omar. We drank tea, talked about killing sheep, and I received a helpful lesson in Bambara.
Then, Vieux. He strolled out of the house casually, big smile, warm greetings all around. We talked about music, about Bamako, America, his guitar tuning, his family, his father. He is humble, maybe too friendly. He gave me his phone number, said I was welcome at his house anytime, told me I could bring the guitar I recently bought or use one of his own. Stunned. This is Africa too.
I am still smiling.
In a few days I will travel east to Timbuktu, Djenne, Sevare, and Dogon Country. After that trip I will stick around Bamako for a bit. I’ve fallen for Mali. I dig the sahelian, desert culture. I’m making new friends. I’m learning a new language. Vieux’s invitation is one more reason (he returns at the end of October) to stay.
Earlier I posted some of Vieux’s music in this musical tour of Mali. Here is some more:
Soaring guitar and vocals, a bit more production than his other songs.
Reggae-ish with shots of Vieux cruising around Bamako.
Playing “Ai Du,” one of his father’s most well known and widely loved songs.
Absolutely gorgeous. With Toumani Diabate on Kora.
Vieux has a website here: http://www.vieuxfarkatoure.com/. If you around California in October, see if you can make it to a show.
For a great tribute to Ali Farka Toure, read this: http://www.vianegativa.us/2006/03/the-mayor-of-niafunke/