Since 1995, when Ry Cooder won a Grammy for Talking Timbuktu (World Circuit/Rykodisc), his session with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, American and British musicians have been exploring West African music and making further connections with Mali. On his 1999 CD Kulanjan (Hannibal), Taj Mahal delved into the music of West Africa; more recently, on Silver Lining (Capitol), Bonnie Raitt collaborated with Malian singer-songwriter Habib Koité on the tune "Back Around." Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn traveled to Mali before recording his Juno Award–winning 1999 album Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc). This year we’ve seen Corey Harris, who’s best known as a blues revivalist, release an album inspired by his travels in Mali and Cameroon titled Downhome Sophisticate (Rounder), And British guitarist Justin Adams (who’s currently touring as part of Robert Plant’s band) produced a hypnotic album of Tuareg desert blues by the northern Malian group Tinariwen titled The Radio Tisdas Sessions (World Village), which he followed up with his own guitar-driven African blues album, Desert Road (World Village).
There’s more. Californian singer-songwriter Markus James culminates seven years of musical travels in northern Mali on his moody and minimalist CD Nightbird (Firenze), which was recorded in Mali with musicians from various local traditions. Trombonist Roswell Rudd and bassist Ben Allison are following in the path of the great pianist Hank Jones with new Mali-related jazz albums. Even Blur frontman Damon Albarn gets into the act with his Mali Music (Honest Jon’s/Astralwerks), a heavily processed set of field recordings the Britpop star made while representing Oxfam in Mali in 2000; and French house producer Fredric Galliano does much the same on his Fredric Galliano and the African Divas (Pias/F Communications). (Michael Endelman’s review of the Albarn and Galliano discs is on page 27.)
For most of these artists, though, blues is what connects their work to the music of Mali. "The blues is at the root of all the music I grew up loving," is how Markus James puts it. "At the root of the blues is Africa, and at the root of the African root of the blues is Mali." Raitt and Harris have made similar statements about Mali. All three artists revere, and have visited and befriended, the sage of African blues, Ali Farka Touré. James first went to Touré’s remote home town Niafunke, near Timbuktu at the southern end of the Sahara, in 1994. The lyrics on his 1999 CD Where You Wanna Be (Firenze) are inspired by the arduous overland trek to and from Touré’s desert home, but the music draws more from the Wassoulou tradition of southern Mali that was made famous by singers like Oumou Sangaré. James’s atmospheric, bluesy acoustic-guitar playing and whisper-and-moan vocals meld naturally with the earthy funk of Wassoulou’s six-string, pentatonic bass harp, the kamelengoni, as played by Solo Sidibe.
When James returned to Mali in 2000 to record Nightbird, he and Sidibe were joined by two extraordinary musicians from Niafunke, Hassi Saré, who plays ethereal cycling melodies on the hypnotic one-string fiddle, the njarka, and Hamma Sankaré, who adds thumping, tumbling calabash rhythms, just as he has on almost all of Touré’s recordings. James’s songs are spare and unhurried, with minimal chord changes, sometimes in the manner of old recordings by another of his musical heroes, John Lee Hooker, whom James says you still hear often on Malian radio. In a village near Timbuktu, Sonrai villagers heard the music as their own. "Hamma played them our recording of the song ‘Midnight,’ " James recalls, "and they all just grew quiet, listening, nodding their heads. They related to it like it was Sonrai music. Likewise, people here relate to it like it’s some kind of old Deep South blues song."
James has never been a studied blues player, and he’s taken a similar approach to Malian traditional music. His intimacy with both the blues and Malian music is part of what makes his fusion of the two work. After we spoke in July, he returned to Mali to begin work on a new album to be called Timbuktoubab, "toubab" being the West African term for "white person."
James was astounded that his Malian collaborators often nailed his songs in a single take. It was the same when Bonnie Raitt brought Habib Koité and three of his band members into an LA studio to record "Back Around." Raitt and Koité had jammed together informally when Raitt toured Mali with Public Radio International’s Afropop Worldwide in 2000, but in the studio there were no sand dunes, campfires, or moonlight to set the scene. It didn’t matter. "We played it once," Koité recalls. "Everything. She sang it at the same time we played it. We didn’t redo anything. Because it’s that style of music."
"Back Around" has all the marks of a classic Bonnie Raitt tune, yet it’s also unmistakably Malian. Koité’s nimble gut-string picking provides an elegant contrast to Raitt’s metallic slide-guitar licks. The calabash, talking drum, and balafon percussion take more of a back seat in Raitt’s recording than in James’s work. But the groove is just as deep, and the connection between the blues and Malian music is just as evident.
For Corey Harris, the discovery of Ali Farka Touré’s music was a revelation. "Whoa! Is he even playing a guitar?", Harris remembers asking himself the first time he got his hands on Touré’s African Blues (Shanachie). After two trips to Mali, including a visit with Touré in Niafunke last year, Harris found himself composing Mali-inspired songs for Downhome Sophisticate. "There’s a tune called ‘Fire’ in this open-G tuning that I learned in Niafunke. This cat up there showed it to me, and it just turned my head around." Harris goes for a wilder, more roaring take on African blues than either Raitt or James, but the hypnotic beat, simple harmony, and desert trance vibe are all there.
Since discovering Malian music, Harris says he’s realized that certain bluesmen have styles with close sonic links to the northern Mali sound. John Lee Hooker, of course, but Harris also points to Skip James of Bintonia, Mississippi. "The way he tunes his guitar is very minor. He’ll tune it in like an A-minor tuning, and the lines he uses are very hypnotic. It’s real similar to what I heard over in Mali."
As Downhome Sophisticate was being released, Harris returned to Niafunke with the idea of recording a few American blues songs, including two Skip James numbers, accompanied by Touré and some of his musicians. "I wanted to go back because I felt it was important to get together with the music from over there, and to bring what little I know from our short tradition here as black people in America, and to make a document of it."
As for English guitarist Justin Adams, he grew up in Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, and by the time he sat down to conjure his own musical evocations of the desert, he had produced albums for the French world-music band LoJo, participated in the "Festival of the Desert" in northern Mali, and recorded a exceptional debut album for a group he encountered there, Tinariwen. Desert Road is more a set of musical sketches than fully realized songs, but it too makes associations between American blues and the West African desert. "Out of the Woods" juxtaposes Touré-like Sonrai guitar and calabash percussion with shimmering slide guitar and organ; "Wayward" taps into a more driving electric sound halfway between Niafunke and Chicago. Next to Touré’s recordings, Tinariwen’s Adams-produced The Radio Tsidas Sessions, which is due out in October, is probably the best place to experience the Malian end of the Mali = blues equation.