This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, 1999

Okay, did the Blues start in sub-Saharan Africa or not?  Did an unbreakable chain of influence from Mali, across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean to the American south, really make Robert Johnson possible?  Who inspired whom over the centuries and what do we have to show for it today?

Armed with some of this year’s new CDs featuring Malian and American guitarists I figured I’d try to get a handle on these questions.  It’s been a banner year for African/Blues crossover.  For those fans whose appetite was whetted by the 1994 Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder collaboration Talking Timbuktu, there are four new CDs worth close scrutiny.  Ali Farka Toure has a new album, his first since Talking Timbuktu, Taj Mahal has just released an album with kora master Toumani Diabate, and newcomer Habib Koité’s album and the 12-artist Putumayo collection Mali to Memphis have only been out a few months.

But to examine the music of these fine performers only in terms of the Blues is to miss an astonishing range of style and expression.  The music connects on too many levels to catalogue. 

Of all the current Malian guitarists, Toure is one who identifies himself as a Blues guitarist, crediting John Lee Hooker as an influence as far back as the 1960s.  But listening to his new recording, Niafunke, recorded in the Malian outback with the same band he used on Talking Timbuktu, I am struck by how much more is going on.

There’s something more intimate about this new collection than Toure’s earlier work with Cooder.  The filigreed introductory passages Toure spins out before the band joins on with calabash and djembe pulse make my fingers twitch.  I try to visualize how he plays so many notes with such seeming unhurried ease.  I fail in the attempt.  And though I can’t understand the words, I find myself leaning into them, as if Toure’s simple authority of delivery is meant to tell me something I need to know.

“Allaha Uya” may be the signature tune for this album.  It is 100% Malian, in the repetetive picking pattern setup, the powerful simplicity of the melodic quote, the vocals following the guitar’s lead in a delicious call and response.  Yet, you can hear so much Blues and old American folk in this song.  It resonates almost on the cellular level.

I go back and forth comparing Niafunke with Talking Timbuktu and am suddenly struck by how many of Toure’s songs are in jig time.  Certainly this isn’t the first rhythm a Blues musician would reach for.  The Celtic fan in me wonders about side-trips to Ireland in the causal chain.  But the melodic shapes that inhabit these rhythms are Blues down to the ground—emphatic blue thirds and dark flatted sevenths. 

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate’s Kulanjan, by contrast, is considerably less bluesy, though the liner notes emphasize the Blues/African connection.  The opening track, “Queen Bee,” for instance, is more a happy West Indies melody filtered through generations of deep south pickers.  It is an ideal vehicle for Taj and Diabate to begin their absorbing musical interplay.  The compilation Mali to Memphis, includes another of Taj’s studio recordings of “Queen Bee.”  Of the two, the version with Diabate pulls the listener in more gently and insistently.  Taj lays back without holding back.  The result glows.

Kulanjan is quite clearly a labor of love.  Recorded in Georgia, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate seem to be hanging out on the porch with Diabate’s band providing additional kora, balafon, percussion, and backing vocals.  The pacing is relaxed and the spotlight moves between continents in smooth and pleasant arcs.

The most successful moments are those in which cultural distinctions vanish and the music becomes impossible to categorize.  “Catfish Blues,” provides one such moment.  Taj lets Diabate’s band establish an utterly sub-Saharan groove over which his National Steel guitar somehow sounds 1000 years old.  “Old Georgie Buck” is another hair-raising moment.  It’s as if two brothers separated for 350 years suddenly got together again and started jamming.  If anyone was looking for the quintessential example of world music, they could stop looking right here.

Habib Koité’s Ma Ya provides a pleasant, contemporary contrast.  His melodic shapes are not bluesy at all, recalling by turns Algerian, French, even Caribbean influences.  “Mansane Cisse,” an almost Pierre Bensusan-like finger-style guitar duet, shows Koité at his most eurocentric, and provides a reminder of how incredibly varied this crop of Malian guitar expression truly is.

After listening to these CDs for weeks, I’m left with the feeling that there is, indeed, something deep and basic uniting these musicians from opposite sides of the planet.  But it isn’t just a matter of African music evolving over centuries into the Blues and then being carried back home in our age of portable recordings to regerminate in its mother soil.  What we have here in this precious handful of CDs is a gentle reminder of the depth and universality of human emotion, expressed in music, transcending geography and language barriers.

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder and Habib Koité all share a willingness to take whatever time they need to tell a story or to express a deep emotion.  This is a rare gift in this jet-propelled world of ours, and one worth savoring.  To focus on the repetitive aspects of the music is to slightly miss the point.  These guys build on a thought or a feeling, layer by musical layer, using the tools of theme and variation that are as old as the human race.  And whether we label the result “the Blues” or not doesn’t really matter.

Each of these CDs contains transcendent moments of absolute human truth.  I’ve been catching myself grinning, just thinking about these moments.  I may not know any more than I did before about where the Blues came from, but I’m feeling a heck of a lot more hopeful about the human race.

CDs discussed in this article:

  • Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate—“Kulanjan” —Hannibal HNCD 1444
  • Ali Farka Toure—“Niafunke” —Hannibal HNCD 1443
  • Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder“Talking Timbuktu” —Hannibal HNCD 1381
  • Habib Koité and Bamada—“Ma Ya” —Putumayo PUTU 146-S
  • Mali to Memphis; an African-American Odyssey”—Putumayo PUTU 145-S