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Niafunke Man

If there is any world music artist who most deserves the status of legendary, then that artist must be Ali Farka Toure. But just as the word legendary means many different things to many different people, so does the music and the man that lives behind the actual legend. To regular music fans Ali is best known for his Grammy award-winning album with Ry Cooder, to musicologists he is the living proof of the African origins of the American blues and to mainstream music journalists, the taxi driver who became the John Lee Hooker of Africa. To those who have been to his home in Niafunke, he is the musician claiming to conjure the djinns, the cook who makes a good lamb stew, but above all the philanthropist reinvesting the earnings of his international career in the local economy. Perhaps what matters most to Ali himself, and perhaps the only thing that matters now, is his farm in Niafunke and the cultural history of Mali. ”In the West this music is just entertainment, and I don’t expect people to understand,” he explains.

The legend of Ali Farka is a tour de force. Add to this his now famous proverbial lexicon which he’s adopted over the years as a rather enigmatic vehicle for his ideas. A ‘dictionary of Farkarism’ to accompany Ali’s biographical material and impressive discography would have come in handy, I thought, on my way back home from the interview. For now, I’ll make do with the sound advice of TV reporter Peter Jennings and “not be a slave to objectivity, because I’m never quite sure what it means”. To cut a long story short, when I turned up for the interview in June, I didn’t know which Ali I was going to encounter.

I met Ali in the lobby of his east London hotel just around the corner from the Barbican. It was spring, yet London was gripped in a heat wave. Upon my arrival at the hotel I headed straight for the porter and started pestering him about the possibility of using a terrace somewhere in the hotel, as the lobby didn’t look particularly fresh. While the man scurried off to find a solution to my seemingly unusual request, I spotted Ali who was sitting in the hotel’s café and relaxing over a glass of Schweppes on his day off. He had swapped his concert gown and porkpie hat of the previous night for a simple T-shirt tucked into a pair of jeans with an enormous belt and was puffing away on a cigarette… The gig with kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate had been a success: “Oh Faaaaantastic!” and soon we got talking about his stay in London. “You see I am not crazy about London. I am married to two wives, I have 12 kids, 12 grandchildren… and being here is as if being in prison.” I enquire whether it’s just London he dislikes. “To sleep in an airport for one week, feels like one year to me. I love it at home. That’s where I started and that’s where I want to finish off.” Ali would rather be in Niafunke, that much was clear, and as he started lamenting about the rest of his tour I started looking around for the porter whom I hoped would return soon with some good news.

Ali's last published interview. From fRoots 273, March 2006


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