AS THE SON OF MALIAN MASTER GUITARIST
Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006), Vieux Farka
Touré had some enormous shoes to fill when
he opted to forego military service for a musical
career. On his eponymous 2006 debut—a
multifaceted record that included his father’s
final performances—the young guitarist stuck
relatively close to home stylistically. On Fondo
[Six Degrees], however, Touré’s playing
reaches exciting new heights, and draws more
freely from rock, reggae, and other traditions.
The characteristic dazzling, ornamentfilled
trills and runs still predominate, but
the grooves are deeper and the harmonic
landscape more encompassing—which is
also true of the 11 almost entirely selfpenned
tunes. Co-produced by Touré and
Yossi Fine, the album features a host of outstanding
musicians, including kora virtuoso
Toumani Diabaté, vocalist Afel Bocoum,
and Fine on bass and n’goni.
Like his father, the younger Touré is also
an exhilarating live performer, as confirmed
at a recent San Francisco show. Touré’s touring
band includes rhythm guitarist Aly
Magassa and djembe and calabash player
Souleymane Kané—both of whom played
with his father for many years—along with
drummer Tim Keiper and bassist Mamadou
Sidibé. Although the music maintained a
distinctly Malian vibe throughout the
evening, it was laced with outside influences
that sometimes manifested subtly as referential
riffs and licks, and at others more
dramatically, as when they veered off into
grooves reminiscent of Remain in Light-era
Talking Heads or the Band of Gypsys.
These are still early days for Vieux Farka
Touré, but his star is rising quickly. We spoke
with him backstage before the San Francisco
show. (Thanks to Deborah Cohen for help
with the translation.)
Your songs combine traditional Malian music with
numerous non-Malian elements. How do you strike
the right balance between tradition and outside
In fact, my music is traditional. It is based
very heavily in tradition. I also think that
everybody should be able to find in my music
whatever it is that they like and they are listening
for. Sometimes it’s rock, sometimes
it’s jazz, and sometimes it’s reggae. I always
like to mix it up a little bit. I am influenced
by everything that I hear.
It sounds like you double-tracked acoustic with
electric for many parts on Fondo.
That’s my style. I always put the foundation
down with the acoustic, and then lay
the electric over it. I find that sometimes the
electric alone is too strident to achieve the
sound that I am looking for.
You’re playing a new guitar these days.
Yes, I used to play a Godin LGX-SA prototype,
and before that I had a Yamaha
acoustic-electric, but the Yamaha was too
heavy to play for long periods. My new guitar
is a Godin Summit CT prototype that I
really like because it is neither too soft nor
too harsh, and it sounds good with the
Roland Jazz Chorus 120.
Do you always play through a JC-120, or do you
sometimes use other amplifiers?
I always play through a JC-120. I do sometimes
play around with other amps to see
how they sound, but I always wind up coming
home to the JC-120. Most Africans, or
at least Malian artists, use the JC-120 because
it has our signature sound—the sound of
the desert. But I prefer the old JC-120s, not
the new ones, which I don’t like at all.
Chorus is a big part of your sound. Do you use
just the amp’s onboard chorus or do you also sometimes
use a pedal?
I use both. Very often I find that the chorus
in the amp is not quite enough, so I’ll
add the pedal in, and sometimes I’ll use the
What type of chorus pedal do you use?
Boss. I’ve never seen or used anything
else. I use my father’s pedals, the old ones.
[Touré was rocking Boss OC-2 Octave, DD-2
Digital Delay, SD-1 Super Overdrive, and TU-2
tuner pedals onstage.]
What compressors did you use to get those
sizzling guitar sounds on the album?
I don’t know the name, but it was a studio
compressor, not a pedal. All I know is
that it was a really good compressor.
There’s also a great reverb sound on many of
We used a studio reverb on the record,
but I don’t know what it was, either. I don’t
like all effects, but I like chorus and reverb.
Reverb for me has soul and emotion and it
speaks to something deeper. It is not just an
What tunings do you use?
Phantom tunings. My style of guitar playing
is the phantom style, and there are three
or four tunings. But sometimes I play in standard
tuning. By phantom I mean that the
tunings are mine. They are secret.
Do you always use a capo at the third fret?
I actually use a capo because of my voice;
I don’t sing very well in the lower range. But
everybody uses them, and there are certain
notes in our music that don’t sound right if
you are not using a capo.
Your right-hand technique involves mostly
your bare thumb and your index finger with a fingerpick.
Are you playing mostly up strokes with
your index finger, or both up and down?
I play with just two fingers, which is the
style of my father, and the standard way to
play in Mali. You can play much more quickly
that way, which is what gives us that fluidity
in the notes. I use both up and down
strokes, depending on the part and the sound
I am trying to achieve.
Are you mostly playing the lower notes with
your thumb, or do you use it for playing all notes?
It varies. For instance, there are some
pieces where my thumb will only play bottom
strings, and there are others where it
will play up to five strings, while my other
finger is also moving up and down. Again,
it just depends on the sound I am after.
How long has the guitar been used in Malian
Guitars have been in Mali since long
before I was born, though the guitars used
in Malian music are usually very rustic or
homemade. And you can hear on some of
my father’s older recordings that the strings
aren’t actually guitar strings. They are motorcycle
brake cables. There are still guitars that
people make and use like that. That’s why
whenever I travel back to my village I always
take many sets of guitar strings for myself
and for others.
What kind of strings do you take?
D’Addario. They are .010-gauge sets mostly,
though sometimes I use extra-light sets.
Looking toward the future, what sort of music
do you plan to do next?
It is impossible for me to speak about the
future, as I may die tomorrow. Besides, the
music comes together when I am in the studio.
Things that have been in my head will
suddenly fall into place. But I would like to
see my music go in a new direction I call
“acoustic groove,” where I mix all kinds of
acoustic instruments—including the banjo
and the n’goni—with the guitar on the same
song. I already have the ideas inside my head,
and in fact I already feel like the next album
is ready to go.
So you do think about the future.
[Laughs] Yes, well it is always like that.
When I finish one album, the next one is
already in the oven!