Among the various African traditions, the Tuareg musicians from the nomadic, pastoral culture of the Saharan Desert in northern Mali appeal especially to Western ears with their use of pentatonic scales. Such five-note octaves are found not only in the music of West Africa, but also in Celtic, Hungarian, and African American music. Some historians suggest that the Germanic tribes who eventually inhabited the British Isles made their way through northwest Africa before finding their final home. Perhaps this history explains the use of pentatonic scales within these diverse cultures.
To begin exploring Tuareg music, consider Tinariwen and the collaborating duo Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté.
Tinariwen was formed in 1979 in Algeria before the group returned to their homeland in Mali in the 1990s. Their music consistently speaks about injustice, rebellion, and restoration. Founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band creates music in an electric guitar-based style known as “assouf,” developed along the Niger River. Hand clapping, tribal drums, and choral singing provide distinctively African flavors, while electric guitars anchor the music to the 21st century. Occasionally, a song will melt away into electronic fading drift. Ah!
Tinariwen’s international reputation grew after the 2001 CD release The Radio Tisdas Sessions. In 2010, they played at the World Cup’s opening ceremony in South Africa, and a year later, Tinariwen received their first Grammy for Best World Music Album category.
From the famous Tassili CD (2011), I recommend “Imidiwan Ma Tennam” and “Tenere Taqhim Tossam,” and from Emmaar, listen to “Toumast Tincha.”
Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté
Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Touré (1939-2006) is considered a pioneer in merging traditional Malian music with American blues. Touré’s frequent use of superimposed rhythms and guitars caused some reviewers to call him the “John Lee Hooker of Africa.” In 1994 on Talking Timbuktu, he collaborated with American slide guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder. In 2005, Touré won his second Grammy for the CD In the Heart of the Moon, on which he partnered with fellow Malian Toumani Diabaté. Touré died in 2006 after a long battle with bone cancer, and a retrospective CD came out in 2010.
Diabaté’s reputation comes from playing the kora, a stringed gourd instrument. He has collaborated with international musicians in a variety of styles, including flamenco, blues, and jazz. The collaboration with Touré is more acoustic and traditional, yet the influence of flamenco is clearly heard in the track “Ii Ga Bani.” My favorites might be “Samba Geladio” and “Machengoidi” from the CD Ali and Toumani. The interplay of kora and acoustic guitar are perfectly suited for back-porch listening on a cool spring evening.
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