The death of Malian musician Ali Farka Touré in Bamako, the country’s capital, from bone cancer, on March 7th, was reported as a major world event. In Mali, President Amadou Toumani Touré mourned the passing with an emotional epitaph, saying, “Farka is a monument of Malian music, Farka is the pride of Mali,” and acknowledging his contribution to his country by posthumously awarding him the Order of Merit. Government radio stations suspended regular programming to play Touré’s music, newspapers ran full-page tributes, and thousands attended memorial ceremonies in Bamako and his hometown of Niafunké, where he was buried. There were obituaries throughout the world press, and in the U.K., his death was described on prime-time TV as the passing of a major cultural figure.
His birth, in 1939, itself proved to be a significant event. The first child to survive after nine infant deaths, he was nicknamed Farka in accordance with a tradition of making a child unpopular with the spirits, in this case by giving him a nickname that translated to “donkey.” Descended from royalty—the Songhai tribe—his interest in music was frowned upon by his family, as it was deemed beneath his heritage. Furthermore, his not being from a griot bloodline meant music shouldn’t have been his destiny, but Ali, living up to his nickname “Farka,” forged ahead anyway.
Touré frequently described himself as a “child of the spirits,” and always said they were his source of inspiration and talent: “Without the river spirit I would be deaf and have no voice. I would cease to be.” He was struck by the spirit ceremonies he’d witnessed as a child, and the idea of communing with spirits through music drove him to pick up the djerkle, a one-stringed guitar. By his early twenties, he’d moved on to other instruments and learned seven of Mali’s local languages fluently, all without a formal education and while working as a taxi and ambulance driver, mechanic and sound engineer.
At this young age, he began traveling throughout the country collating, recording and learning to play all kinds of music he came across. This passion for learning never left him. In an interview, he explained, “First of all, you have to know about yourself. You have to know about your culture, about myths and history, about your roots. This is very important for a human being.”
Touré’s passion for mastering each of Mali’s distinct musical traditions broke his society’s rules. Before him, a musician would stick to his tribal roots in his repertoire and style, while the griots would follow in their ancient tradition of praise-singing their patrons. By transcending cultural and musical boundaries, Ali was free to create and recreate. He chose to celebrate his country’s musical traditions by breathing new life into them, using traditional instruments and rhythms, but playing them in a new context, spiced up by his own talent.
He began to learn the guitar in the mid 1950s, but rather than abandoning the traditional music he had mastered, he let it inform his guitar playing, the first Malian musician to do this. He adapted the songs and techniques he had learned on the djerkle, playing his guitar with West African tone and phrasing, accompanied by quintessentially Malian instruments and vocals. While his playing was unique and exciting, the emphasis for Touré was always on the message the songs contained. He wove the ancient musical tapestry of Mali as a backdrop, relying on the wisdom of the past. Touré believed older ideas resonated with the present, and used them to powerful effect: to promote peace during Mali’s years of civil unrest; to encourage social consciousness; to praise traditional family values; to talk of love, the spirits, the land, education and justice. But it was a long, slow journey to becoming the first African artist ever to be awarded a Grammy, for 1994’s Talking Timbuktu, his collaboration with Ry Cooder. In the 1970s, Touré