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Niafunke Man

Ali on his very first UK appearance
Photo: Ian Anderson
Ali on his very first UK appearance
Yet it was the 1970s, the golden years for Malian music, that provided the tools and desire for a solo career. The music scene in Bamako was exploding with a variety of musical movements and not only was there a real interest in Mali’s own diverse musical traditions, but also numerous styles from abroad, such as Cuban son, French musette, Congolese rumba… and African American soul from the likes of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Jimmy Smith, Albert King and John Lee Hooker. These musics were making a great impact on local dance and music orchestras and those who ran them. Ali was stirred by one style of music in particular and that was of course the blues, a music whose strong West African pedigree was evident to Ali. “When I heard Hooker’s music for the first time I heard echoes of Tamasheq blues.” Ali is still convinced these American soul brothers took their music from his homeland Mali. “They interpret a culture of which they don’t know the biography.”

The 1970s were a real breakthrough for Ali in terms of a solo career in Mali and things were looking up. He had won great acclaim as a soloist of diverse musical traditions and had finally found a permanent job as a sound engineer at Radio Mali. And it was there at Radio Mali where Ali’s involvement with the music industry began. While working in the studios, he managed to record and broadcast quite a few of his own sessions (himself on guitar, ngoni or flute), a number of which he sent to a record company in Paris. Unfortunately, Ali’s records didn’t land in the right hands and a troubled relationship with a French producer became an obstacle to any form of commercial success. Years later, when Andy Kershaw picked up one of his recordings, an unlabelled bright red LP, from a bargain bin in a shop in Barbès, he’d actually come to the point of giving up music all together. The rest, of course, is history. Andy persuaded Anne Hunt from World Circuit to go and seek out the mystery man and to invite him to record and tour. Upon her arrival in Bamako, Anne arranged for an appeal to be broadcast on Radio Mali and as luck would have it, Ali heard the broadcast…

Ali did, in the end, find success in the West with the help and vision of record producer Nick Gold (the man behind Buena Vista Social Club). Their relationship has lasted more then 27 years now and when asked to describe it, Ali produces yet another classic Farkarism: “When you give trousers to a monkey, the trees will end up with lots of scarfs.” What does he mean? “After my experience in France, I needed to find someone who I could trust. I have found that somebody in Nick. I won’t encounter another producer in my lifetime with whom I will have such a close understanding.” Nick Gold has released eight albums so far (six original recordings including the popular River, The Source, and Talking Timbuktu, and two re-releases of Ali’s long lost first five albums which he originally recorded on LP for Son Afric) and is working on yet another one.

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


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