A walk with Ali Farka Touré, the farmer who communed with spirits

As I walked out of a mental quagmire of assimilated media assertions, booming statistics, opinions and analyses of the dire situation the world faces, I realised I missed my grandmother’s 4th death anniversary in April. My brother spent a good five minutes in a welcome, but  guilt inducing conversation that he most definitely revelled in, although from a great geographical distance. So much for social distancing, a highly unsuitable term, especially at a time when I feel the most filial and social engagement with my family and friends despite the physical separations. 

Even so, the walk outside had its share of nuance; some pedestrians were the kind that stood their ground frozen and some jumped outwards of the path as I approached, dependent on their degree of intake of viral literature of the day. Such are the  times where I too am now quite afraid of my own shadow, but I continue to order produce and products handled by people at major retail chains. Boxes and bags arrive at my doorstep and all this requires, I believe, a high degree of trust in the unknowable. 

The unsexed single strand of Ribonucleic acid, in a protein coat shaped like a crown can safely and surely be crowned the undisputed monarch of a pandemic of impending social, psychological and economic disintegration. This is the fear too, of the unseen, that now assails us.

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The little details by DES

Walking the same paths, by the same river and along much of the same sameness, I find it is terribly windy. There are men pruning branches, Spring has burst out in bud and colour and yet, everything takes  on a different hue when my earphones usher in the Sahara. A man whose voice rings out tremulously yet clearly, makes my heart sync with the ebb and flow of the incoming tidal waters of the Hackensack. His voice is of his native Malian Songhai, singing Ai du.

American guitarist and producer, the amazing Ry Cooder, collaborated in 1994, with this son of Niafunke of Central Mali,  Ali Farka Touré, on the album Talking Timbuktu. It was the recipient of much international acclaim and accolades including the Grammy for Best World Music album of the year .

The man behind this music was not a traditional Griot or hereditary musician of Mali. Ali Farka Touré was trained as a sound engineer, given the nickname Farka, which means donkey, in a language that alluded to his tenacious hold on life, given perhaps that he was the tenth child in his family but the first to survive infancy as well as survive a snake bite at thirteen, that took him long to recover from. He is holding his guitar while on his easy chair on the cover of his 2006 album Savane, released posthumously, an image that reminds me of my dad, with a guitar balanced on his abdomen and himself fast asleep.

Ai du, with Touré on acoustic guitar, proceeds to evolve like a fractal, assuming different scales to gain several dimensions. It begins like the clear waters of the Niger, emanating from the ancient rocks of the Guinean highlands, as it moves away from the Atlantic, into the Sahara Desert, where it  takes a sharp right turn near the ancient city of Timbuktu and heads southeast to the Gulf of Guinea. It is shaped like a boomerang, this river of rivers, as observed from the skies. Is this what inspired Ai du,  I wonder, the course of a river through the hearts and minds of people, as it travels across land seeding lakes, evaporating across the Sahel, confluences with tributaries, fractalizes onto a Delta, much like a song but iterating the same crystallized philosophy contained in a single verse. 

Trust and faith in your fellow man has no equal.

If you have experienced trust you will know its strength.

You must know yourself before you know others.

What is it with the times, that values like trust and faith feel like a  mere crutch of poetic parlance. In normal times and in Corona times, I would find this hard, but I let this be a guide to finding strength within me,  to remember at all times that there exists a basic selfless humanity and even in the bleakest of times, be able to identify it. Perhaps, he is right, I will see it only if I know it in myself..

As I stand awhile next to the marshes of the Meadowlands. I can almost sense rivers separated in time and space. It’s a strange day today, the wind blows strong, I feel like a feather, it’s sunny but the cold enters my ears. A Mallard drake stands guard over a hen perched atop a wooden post in the water. Is this trust I wonder, that she feels  protected from the onslaught of the unwelcome attention of aggressive drakes? The water is glistening like a thousand diamonds, lapping the banks and the sound of this song ebbs and flows and I can only imagine myself like a dhow that floats on water, offering no resistance. 

Touré sang of love, his daily life, songs of prayer (he was a devout Muslim) and one day he put it all behind him, disillusioned with fame and modern international life, as he returned to his roots to farm and work the land. When one retreats from life, into the belly of the land, I think the sentient being wishes to align in sync with the natural rhythm, to retreat from the creative impetus into regenerative  dormancy.

After an  extended hiatus from music he came around to record with Toumani Diabate (the 21 stringed Kora virtuoso). He needed time he said to dig, to explore, to forget perhaps so he could remember what he needed to say, crystallize his thoughts. As Mayor of Niafunke in those absent years, he helped his  community set up schools, tried to bring about an appreciation for Malian culture, music and history, the source of his inspiration being rooted in tradition.

“It comes from the heart and the blood,” he said. Only one that is possessed by spirit can talk of heart and blood for he insisted that he sang with spirit. His recovery from his snakebite in earlier years, took him into the realm of visions. His persona engaged spirit on stage while he sang, perhaps oblivious to any other influence except to the passion of his own spirituality. 

I take this as inspiration from someone whose deepest conscience resonates with a self created philosophy of life, rooted in an ancient culture and the natural rhythm of human existence, the cycles of creative outpourings and the latent inertia of being swallowed underground in entropy.

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Long forgotten media by DES

Savane is the final solo album that Touré recorded with Diabaté, his best yet he said. Although from the land of the desert blues, Savane, has a  lone string guitar introduction that detours into Reggae. Touré was known to contend that his art was not about the music but about the message. Towards the end of his life, he battled with bone cancer and four months after his death, his voice rang out in Savane ……

Au lieu de nous donner non seulement des bombes

Donnez nous des moto-pompes, 

pour qu’on puisse quand meme subvenir a’ nos besoins naturels 

Pour trouver la vie et le savoir et la sagesse.

Instead of giving us only bombs

Give us motor pumps, 

so we can still provide for our natural needs 

To find life, knowledge and wisdom

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