Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
Hommage to Ali Farka Touré
Categories: Uncategorized

Franceso and Ali in Venice


“Savane”-Ali Farka Touré

Nonesuch 2006 © | Savane
Audio MP3


Remembering Ali Farka Touré

By Steven Feld
Ali Farka Touré, the Malian musician who gained international acclaim for his “desert blues” guitar stylings on CDs like The Source, The River, Niafunké, Savane, and the Grammy award-winners Talking Timbuktu and In the Heart of the Moon, died March 7, 2006. I had the great privilege of a few days of meals, conversations, and walks with the man at a small conference in Venice, Italy in January of 2001. This reminiscence is drawn from my dairy of those days.

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

The arrival scene at Marco Polo airport struck me as perfect for the opening of the Venice Carnevale (although my date book tells me that it is actually the opening of the Chinese New Year). Greeting me as I disembarked was the warm and gentle Italian-flavored English in the voice of Sabrina, a petite porcelain-skinned and very red-lipped young woman with pixie-cut white-blond-hair and extremely black eye-makeup, stylishly dressed in hot pink and black. In a few moments she led me to a presence of equal elegance just a few gates away. Tall, beautifully dressed in tuxedo pants, patent leather formal slip-on shoes, a heavy overcoat, and multi-colored scarf was Ali Farka Touré, the great guitarist from Mali. As he stands I realize how striking and pronounced is the difference in height and skin color to Sabrina when they are both right in front of me, she barely reaching to his shoulder height in heels.

“Cinquante Six”-Ali Farka Touré

Hannibal 1991 © | The Source
Audio MP3

Ali greets me graciously in what I recognize to be a very formal French. I respond briefly, apologizing for my modest ability with the language, simply telling him that the pleasure of meeting is all mine, that I have listened to his music with real joy for a long time. He thanks me with more formality as he continues to shake my hand, saying that these are such kind words. Ali has just arrived from long travel, considerably more hours than me even if less distance. As we begin to walk, following Sabrina’s enthusiastic march toward the baggage area, he tells me his route: via Land Rover from Niafunké to Bamako, 850 kilometers, then by plane to Paris, and on to Venice. I tell him that I have come from New York via Milan.

Our common purpose here is a conference on “world music,” or rather music and globalization, but I don’t think either of us is aware of exactly what we are in for. It is my first academic conference in Italy. Having retired from performing, Ali is here without a guitar. He tells me that he feels a deep sense of honor to be invited to an academic conference not as a musician but as a lecturer. “But of course I have some music,” he says, taking a somewhat dusty audio cassette from his coat pocket to show me. It is at that moment that I realize how large his palms are, how long and strong his fingers, how the cassette looks micro in the largeness of his hand. I explain that I am not a performer of world music but a professor who studies the topic. “I am sure to learn from you, professor” he responds with respectful grace. “But you are the true professor among us,” I say, very aware of how stiff the words feel to me when rendered literally in French; he smiles and again takes my hand and shakes it warmly, thanking me.

“Gomni”-Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder

Hannibal 1994 © | Talking Timbuktu
Audio MP3

Our baggage collected, Sabrina leads us to a waiting water taxi, a new experience for Ali and me. Sitting across from each other, surrounded by the overcast grays and fog of January in Venice, the boat motor hypnotic, we each drift in and out of eyes-shut moments of jetlag as the taxi makes its way from the airport dock to the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, home of our host, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. But I’m startled out of drift at a moment when the boat’s speed and course changes, and Ali, both hands open and reaching out, eyes focused and deep, looks right at me and waxes eloquent as he delivers the perfect Venice “first encounter” soundbyte: “to make a city out of water, ça c’est la force!”

The rest of today has disappeared into the usual arrival business, greetings, meeting arriving colleagues, and an orientation to the Cini Foundation’s spectacular monastic villa. I’ve never been to Venice, and am greatly excited to experience the place for the first time. But as I’ve now slept, gotten up to write these few lines before we travel over the water to town for a conference dinner, I can’t stop thinking of Ali’s brief and beautiful comment, of how much more lyrical, deep, and soulful it is than anything I read on the plane in my hyped-up tourist guidebook.  Yes, indeed: “ça c’est la force”  — how directly a man from the African desert can apprehend the magical power of a city on top of water.


The conference –directed and moderated by Francesco Giannattasio, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Rome– took place over the following three days, and featured a variety of lectures on the topic of “world music” by excellent European scholars, our papers ultimately appearing in the journal EM (Rivista Degli Archivi Di Etnomusicologia, new series 1, 2003). When we said our goodbyes after those days, Ali departed on the long trip back to Niafunké, and I took the train to Rome with Giovanni Guiriati, now also Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Rome, to have some days with colleagues and students there and at the Accademia Nazionale Di Santa Cecilia before returning to New York. There are two other moments recorded in my diary and in pictures that stay with me as strongly as the moment of first meeting Ali, and the comment that I’ve remembered as so poetic.


“Ali’s Here”-Ali Farka Touré

Hannibal 1999 © | Niafunke
Audio MP3

Friday January 26, 2001

This afternoon it is Ali’s turn to speak. “I want to tell you where my music comes from,” he begins, making clear that he will speak about his home, his life there, the work he and his friends do, “the source” or “origin” as he continues to emphasize. He speaks about the desert, about poverty, about farming, about water. And then he starts to get into it deeply and begins describing the process of importing water pumps and irrigation equipment. And I realize that maybe he is going into a zone of metaphor and a variety of French that is way over my head. Denis Constant-Martin, who has done terrific research on jazz and African music, is sitting next to me. I figure it is time to break down and ask a native French speaker what is going on. Denis whispers to me that Ali is speaking in a rather ornate and rustic formal West African French, full of allusions. He asks if I understand. I tell him that I only understand in general. He says, “don’t worry, it would be extremely difficult to translate!” and smiles at me. He is listening hard; me too, as Ali is calmly, but passionately telling us everything we possibly could want to know about the difficulties of getting water pumps, preparing them, repairing them, getting replacement membranes for them, seeing to it that they work to irrigate dry lands, making farming possible, to feed the life of his place. This goes on for 50 minutes. But I think it is great. Give the man a chance to speak about where the music comes from and he gives an eloquent lecture about food, famine, dryness, the desert, water, work, community, the source. Fantastic. Of course it is all about PLACE and this is what I love, this beautiful way of saying that the experience of place is the real source of all music. At this moment I just want to hug and thank Francesco for the brilliant idea of having Ali SPEAK rather than play. He has SO MUCH to say.

Only at the very end does he produce the cassette full of desert dust from his pocket, and we hear a few minutes of music. It is Ali jamming with his students and friends at Niafunké. He concludes by reminding us that this is what they do after they have done the heavy work, making water flow, planting, farming. This is where the music comes from, he concludes.

The talk is finished, the audience half dazzled and mystified. D
enis tells me that he is not quite sure he understands it all. I certainly only got 60% of the French. People are clapping.  Ali is beaming. Francesco graciously thanks Ali and then opens the floor to questions.

“Can you say something about the experience of making music with Ry Cooder for Talking Timbuktu” asks one Italian journalist, eagerly. “Well, we sent him the music and three weeks later we got together and played the music.” NEXT!  I loved this. Ali was not biting, not going to glorify Ry Cooder, praise him, make him the big star, do the big gratitude number, wasn’t having any of that Ladysmith and Paul Simon kind of stuff. He threw off the question with just about one sentence. Brilliant. Another hand goes up, and the question is similar: “Can you say something about the success and importance of Talking Timbuktu, and all the exposure you have gotten from the Grammy award together with Ry Cooder?” Again, Ali throws out another one sentence response. ” I am happy that so many people heard the recording and responded so positively.” Like: Ry Cooder? WHO?! This was really brilliant. Ali just so graciously resisting all of the grand liberal sugar-coated narratives about collaboration, about world music as meeting place of the West and the Rest, about the great democracy of “no-borders” music. He knows better. He is not going to give a lecture about power, race, and exposure. But he is also not going to give the journalists the pleasure of hearing yet another African speak about how much he owes to the white man. So far this is the very best moment of the whole conference. And maybe the best wrap-up of the real meaning of “world music,” namely, musical empowerment to/for whom and under what circumstances?

Saturday, January 27, 2001

Francesco and I take a walk after lunch with Ali, moving through some of the commercial streets near Piazza San Marco. Ali is well-known for his cowboy hats, and pictured quite often wearing one. Amazingly –for this New Mexican– we pass a shop with hats. And they are good ones, Stetson, and expensive, particularly in European currency. Ali is happy. He goes into the shop and buys a very large-brimmed formal off-white Stetson, puts it on and continues to walk and talk with us about the beauty of Venice, about the presence of water everywhere. There is a moment of sun in the Piazza San Marco as we stop, with Francesco telling Ali and me about the history of the church in front of us. I simply must take a photo. The image of the two of them relaxing together, at ease in this city of water, representing the whole “world” of “world music,” is my favorite from the conference.


Sunday, January 28, 2001

Ali wears his hat to our last breakfast;  Francesco does us the favor of a photo at the table, as Ali writes out his mailing address for me. “Please send me the photo and your music. It will be my pleasure to receive you some day in Niafunké.”

Steven Feld and Ali at breakfast

From “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Feels Like Going Home” | Sony 2004 ©

Ali talks about music (and plays)video

Leave a Reply