WHEN KHAIRA ARBY, THE GREAT DIVA OF TIMBUKTU, Mali, made her U.S. debut tour in the late summer of 2010, audiences were treated to the electric guitar-driven adaptation of desert folklore that she has been perfecting for more than two decades. Arby delivered, but spectators leaving the shows frequently talked instead about the group’s jaw-dropping lead guitarist, Abdramane Touré. As song after song swirled into lengthy trance jams, the most riveting action was the sight of Arby, in traditional finery, exchanging improvised riffs with her beaming young guitarist. Arby would sing, and Touré would answer, catching her every note and inflection, and embellishing them with tasty flourishes, sweetened by his trademark modulated and lightly distorted tone.
It might be a stretch to talk about “trademark” anything with Touré, because despite his spectacular chops, easy style, and brilliant expression, he’s only in his late teens, and has been playing guitar for just three years.
“My father is a guitarist, and that also pushed me to become a guitarist,” says the modest Touré, who started out on percussion at age 13. “But it cost me. I had to succeed at guitar, as I had abandoned school. I can’t even tell you how many hours I played every day. Sometimes I slept with the guitar on my belly.”
Abdramane’s father, Bastos Touré (currently with Oumou Sangaré’s band), was just one of the great players around Timbuktu that the young guitarist learned from by watching.
“I really, really listened to music from around Mali,” he says. “But I also listened to a lot of music from the outside, like Santana, Hendrix, Dire Straits, and Pink Floyd, which really helped me as I was developing speed.”
These days, speedy riffs come effortlessly to Touré, who favors extra-light strings on his electric and uses a light flatpick. To anyone surprised to hear such a heavy sound from such lightweight gear, Touré replies, “It’s the opposite. For me, it’s very important not to force or be too aggressive with your playing. You have to play very lightly. You have to caress the strings so they’ll do what you want.”
Following in the footsteps of local guitarists— notably Vieux Farka Touré, son of the legendary Ali Farka—this Touré started out playing acoustic guitar, picking with thumb and forefinger rather than a flatpick, and often tuning the low E string up to G to play Tuareg, Sonrai, and other regional ethnic styles, which rely almost entirely on major, minor, and Dorian pentatonic scales. This is what Touré means when he talks about “folklore,” but he says that was just the start. “Why follow the road of playing only folklore?” he asks. “When you mix it with other styles and other ideas, that gives the music a very nice color.”
Touré’s mentors believed that playing fingerstyle is crucial when beginning. “They told me that only the hand can give you the true sound of the guitar,” he recalls. “It’s all about touch. After you’ve mastered that, then you go to the pick and get more speed.”
He demonstrates his fingerstyle technique with a piece that shifts between Cm and Am, featuring a forthright melody played in octaves with thumb and forefi nger. When it comes to more active melodies, Touré uses the forefinger like a pick, playing both upstrokes and downstrokes, and relying on plenty of nimble hammer-ons and pull-offs.
For Timbuktu guitarists, the local Tuareg lute called the tahardent is an indispensable model. Because it is fretless, the tahardent allows for the subtle insertions of chromaticism that define local styles. Early on, Touré worked hard to master a praise song to a Tuareg warrior, which he demonstrates with fast riffing on the fourth and fifth strings, making heavy use of open notes. The scale is A minor pentatonic, but key riffs insert a B passing note—a tahardent signature. On another Tuareg song, Touré plays in C major pentatonic, trilling between E and Eb. Mixing minor and major 3rds in a pentatonic setting is, of course, basic to the blues, and one reason why some Tuareg guitar bands have made an easy fusion of their own folklore with blues and rock. But watching Touré’s busy fingers, one sees that it’s all about note placement. That minor 3rd has to be handled only briefly, and on a weak beat, to get just the right sound.
“We refer to it as the Turaeg language,” explains Touré. “You have to know the language by ear, and then make your guitar play in that language. It’s the same with Sonrai. If you play Sonrai music, your guitar must speak Sonrai.”
With that, he switches to F major pentatonic over a low G drone, but frequently darkens the mode by trilling from F to F#.
“Sonrai music is multicolored and very open,” says Touré. “You can mix it with whatever other music you like.”
Given his druthers, Touré would play a Gibson SG, and he favors Fender and Peavey tube amps. For last year’s U.S. shows, however, Touré made do with an Encore Stratocaster knock-off that the band’s American manager bought for him, and at many shows, he plugged into a Roland Jazz Chorus, the preferred amplifier of most African guitarists.
“The Roland is a little bit lighter,” he says. “But even when I am using the Fender, I do like to add chorus or flange and distortion.”
Striding the stage in florid “conversation” with Arby, Touré hardly seemed to mind these compromises on gear. Still, given how far this young player has come in just three years, one gets the feeling he won’t have to compromise much longer.