Vieux Farka Touré

November 1, 2009

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 influences?

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 pedal instead.

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 the songs.

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 effect.

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 music?

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!

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