October 4 at The Iron Horse brought an evening
of indigenous Malian blues from the guitar master.
Photos By Jennifer Kelly
staccato sounds drift out onto the street on a warm, October night, the plink
of something like banjo pattering against ringing lattice work of guitar and an
insistent percussive sound halfway between slap and pop bass and blues guitar.
It’s hard to believe that there aren’t any drums in play, as Malian guitarist
Sidi Touré holds court, flanked by two musicians, the one on his left Jambala
Maiga, playing a small gourd-shaped instrument called a kuntigui, the one on
his left, Douma Maiga, a pair of elongated one- and two-stringed kurbus, and
he, in the middle, wielding a traditional guitar, though one bent to some
strange, evocative desert sounds.
All three instruments are mic’d, with pick-ups
placed directly on the body of the instruments, yet the effect is decidedly
low-tech. Jambala Maiga tunes by pulling a frayed rattan cord at the top of
neck of his instrument. When it’s Douma Maiga’s turn to tune, Touré simply
sings him a phrase, and he matches his notes to the vocal line.
is here from halfway around the world, bringing the dry desert blues of the
Sahel to this New England college town. “I
hope he tells some stories,” I say to my husband on the drive down. “You don’t
get to sit down with a guy from Mali
every day. I hope he talks a little bit between songs.
I get my
wish, sort of, as Touré uses the breaks between songs to talk about music and
politics, the end of forced marriage in Mali, his own and countryman Ali
Farka Toure’s relationship to the American blues, and the necessity and
pleasure of nurturing trees in his desert homeland, among other things. At
least, that’s what I think he’s talking about. He speaks in a rapid French, the
colonial language of Mali,
and my three years of high school French class will only provide the barest
outlines, not the details, of his commentary. “Le monde a besoin de patience,”
he observes, during the very first break, and indeed, yes, but also better
Touré’s smile is infectious and he manages, with difficulty, to communicate
sufficiently to get his audience to sing along. “Cava?” sings Jambala Maiga, in
a rough, wavering voice that is sandpapery next to Touré’s smoother, more
carrying tone. And, finally, after some confusion (“Are we really supposed to
be singing?”), we answer “Cava” and more or less in tune. This call and
response is at the heart of his music, whether conveyed in a vocal back and
forth between Touré and his audience, Touré and his fellow singer, or in the
response of one instrument to another. The three musicians never stop listening
to one another, locking into a hypnotic groove where one ventures an idea, the
others frame and elaborate on it. They move together, too, sometimes, shuffling
back and forth on the stage in a restless slow rhythm, and at other times, face
each other, to communicate with eyes and face and body movements, as well as music.
of Touré’s band is pointillistic, its riffs and phrases made of intersecting
pings and plucks and bumps, yet his voice carries over all this in a serenity
that seems effortless, his long sustained tones implying endless distances,
solitude and calm acceptance of whatever life brings. About midway through the
program, Touré talks, for a few minutes about the blues, a tradition separated
from his own by time and geography, yet curiously linked. And then, having made
his connection with the blues (or perhaps having disclaimed it), he and his
band launched into the two or three most blues sounding songs of the night,
Douma coming up front to bang out sway-backed, caravan rhythms on a
two-stringed kurbu, the heat-stroke haze of Touré’s picking becoming
increasingly hallucinatory. The piece, not on this year’s #SahelFolk# as far as I can tell, has a little of Muddy Waters’
incantatory drive, a bit of Otis Redding’s flowery ornamentation around the
vocals. Touré’s vocals are wordless, fluttering variations on breath and tone.
“Aah-ahh,” he murmurs, against a relentless, slow-kicking beat, “Ah-ah ah.”
evening closesé with an encore of “Taray Kongo,” the long, lovely highlight of
Touré’s Sahel Folk. Jambala Maiga took the lead, his
raspy, weathered voice striking out over the crowd, singing the long, looping
phrases, and Touré, beside him, locking them down with a short, murmured
response. He had, doubtless, explained exactly what the song was about and what
it meant to him beforehand (Did I hear, “This is my ‘Claire de Lune,’ or was that my imagination?), but the song spoke its own
language and got through just fine without translation.