READY, SET, GAO! Sidi Touré

On his second American
album the spiritually-minded African guitar maestro brings his Songhaïroots –
and its culture of sharing – to the masses.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

“I always compare music to a married woman,” says
Malian guitarist Sidi Touré.  “When she
goes to the town hall she wears a veil, but if she wears twenty veils she’s
going to suffocate. Music has to breathe!”

 

That’s one way of saying that latest album Koïma is more richly ornamented album
than 2011’s Sahel Folk (reviewed here), but
only to a point.  Where the U.S. debut was
a series of voice and guitar duets, recorded casually at Touré’s sister’s home,
Koïma brings in calabash, bass,
multiple guitars and a back-up singer. 
It’s a denser, more animated realization of Touré’s Songhaïroots, a
culture that he explains is centered around sharing – of food, of joy and, most
of all, of music. 

 

“For example, when we recorded Sahel Folk in my sister’s house, she killed a sheep for us,” he
recalls.  “If you visit a Songhaï and he
only has one sheep, no matter how poor he is, he will kill it for you. God will
manage the rest.”

 

Touré grew up in Gao in northern Mali, a center of the Songhai
culture.  Born into a noble family, he
wasn’t supposed to become a musician.
In fact, it was frowned upon. But Touré was undeterred by
family pressure. He and his friends made guitars from wooden writing slates as
small children and took turns playing them.  
At the age of 10, he won a real guitar in a contest, although one
without strings or tuning pegs.   By the
age of 16, Touré had joined the Songhaï Stars as its youngest musician.  He learned traditional songs and playing
styles from Ibrahim HammaDicko, one of the Gao region’s greatest players. 

 

“Even
when I joined the Songhaï Stars, my family’s disapproval didn’t relent,” he
remembers.  “The situation only began to
change when we won the Biennales of Bamako in 1984 and 1986. We toured through Mali, Niger,
and Algeria,
and only then did they understand that not everybody can become a doctor,
physicianor driver. That’s what makes the world beautiful.”

 

Touré became a national figure in Mali, but his first record to be released in the
U.S.
was Sahel Folk.  A tour last year brought Touré, as well as
two companions who played traditional instruments (kuntigui, kurbus) to the
States as well.  “From Sahel Folk and the US tour, I really came to
understand what it means that music has no color and no frontier,” he
says.  “Because with one acoustic guitar
and two traditional instruments, American audiences really enjoyed the shows.  They proved that without understanding a word.  We can understand people thanks to music.”  (Go here to read the BLURT
review of that 2011 tour.)

 

 

 

 

For Koïma (released, like its predecessor on
Thrill Jockey), Touré gathered a diverse group of Malian talent.  Oumar Konate, who plays the guitar, is the
song of a long-time Songhaï Star supervisor and master of ceremonies.  Alex Alass Baba, the calabash player, has
played with Baba Salah.  Leila Hamidou,
the back-up singer, is an old family friend from northern Mali, whom Touré
reconnected with at a benefit to protest human trafficking.  Zoumana Téréta, who plays the violin-like sokou
player, has accompanied Oumou Sangaré.

 

As
with Sahel Folk, the songs in Koïma draw from Gao tradition, though filtered through Touré’s own
experience and artistic vision.  “My basis is the folklore of Gao,” he
explains.  “As I like to say, ‘Someone
else’s blanket cannot cover you. Only your own blanket can.'”

 

Yet
though he takes inspiration from the music that surrounded him in childhood and
which still flourishes in his homeland, Touré reinterprets these traditions
freely.  “To compose my own songs, I often
keep the rhythm and change the lyrics or the melody to make it more trenchant.  Or I might change the structure of the song.
Sometimes people say that I modernize the Songhaï music, but to me it’s
reinterpretation.”

 

The
title track, for instance, takes its name from mystical “Koima,” (in Gao, “Koï”
means “go” and “ma” means “hear”), a pink dune where legend says that all of
the wizards in the world would gather.  “It
is said that there is something under the dune, but I don’t want to talk about
that. The mystery of Koïma can’t be told. It has to be lived.”

 

Touré
says he visited Koïma with a friend and went to see its chief. “This chief gave
me his blessing, there is no better gift than a blessing,” says Touré. “That’s
why I decided to name this album Koïma,
as a sign of gratitude.”

 

The
song “Tondi Karaa,” or “The White Stone,” one of the album’s best, also
has a historical resonance.  Touré
explains that the song commemorates a stone brought to Mali from Mecca
by Askia Mohamed. “While he crossed the desert, his camel died. Lost, he prayed
and before the end of the prayer, an elephant appeared and brought him to Gao,”
Touré explains. 

 

Once
brought to Gao, the stone became part of the community’s religious ritual.  “It was an important stone,” says Touré. “Beneath
it there was a fine, white sand used during blessings. But the stone
disappeared. A lot of things are said about this, but for me the reason was
because people stopped loving each other, so God was angry. People turned their
backs, so God turned his back.”

 

Despite
this dire ending, “Tondi Karaa” is one of the album’s most rollicking,
rhythmically propulsive tracks, riding a slant-wise, blues-driving guitar riff
(it sounds like Muddy Waters) that nearly necessitates physical motion.  It’s quite a change from Sahel Folk‘s melancholy introspection, but Touré cautions listeners that
this new direction may not be permanent. Album number three, when it comes,
will showcase yet another side of Touré’s Gao-based, spiritually uplifting art.
Touré refuses to get specific but admits, “I can say that the audience will see
another side of my music, as Koïma is
different from Sahel Folk, as the third album will be
different from Koïma.

 

[Photo Credit: Johnathan Crawford]

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