WHEN MALI’S ICONIC GUITARIST ALI FARKA Touré died in 2006, his son Vieux Farka Touré quickly laid claim to his mantle with a strong debut CD and a sustained bout of international touring. Less noticed in the hubbub was the man who had served as the elder Touré’s longtime accompanist and protégé, Afel Bocoum. It takes nothing away from young Toure to point out that when it comes to carrying on the deep, spiritual traditions of Mali’s desert north, the truer successor is probably Bocoum. With his group Alkibar, Bocoum performs highly evocative and hypnotic music—especially that of Mali’s agrarian Sonrai people—at the level of chamber music. The music on Bocoum’s two solo albums—1999’s Alkibar and last year’s Niger [Contre Jour]—are about as haunting as any you’ll find, full of the serene, otherworldly power of the desert realm where Muslim Arabs and animist Africans have mingled their ideas, beliefs, and folklore for centuries.
As a guitarist, Bocoum is less flashy than either Touré. Until age 20, his only instrument was his reedy, warm, and true tenor voice. “I started guitar by accident,” Bocoum said recently in New York, where he participated in a Lincoln Center concert organized by British rocker and Mali music fan Damon Albarn. “I had lots of concerts, but my soloist was always unavailable. One day, I was angry about this and I said, ‘I’m going to learn to play.’”
No one taught him. Not even the elder Touré, whom Bocoum says was notoriously reluctant to show anyone anything on guitar. “If you want to learn Sonrai music, you have to understand the rhythms and the melodies,” explains Bocoum. “Once you have those, if you are a guitarist, it will be easy for you. The important thing is the ear. The ear and the heart.”
Sonrai music is not about chords or harmonic forms, or even technique—although mastering the fleet ornamentations Bocoum delivers with hammer-ons and pull-offs will challenge even the keenest ear. Luckily, the basics of accompaniment are more approachable, mostly consisting of singlestring pentatonic melodies, frequently played only on the three high strings. Bocoum plays fingerstyle, using his thumb and a nimble forefinger to pick, although he seldom combines low and high notes.“We play the guitar the way we play our traditional instruments,” says Bocoum, referring to the njarka (horsehair fiddle) and gurkel (traditional lute), both of which have just one string. Often these instruments play in unison, and the guitar tradition starts there.
Bocoum occasionally tunes the low E up to a G, which is a standard technique in northern Mali. The sunniest Sonrai songs use a major pentatonic scale, in this case G, A, B, D, E (low to high). But Bocoum is just as apt to work with this scale against a standard-tuned E bass, making it an Eminor pentatonic scale. Or, he might use the same scale against an A in the bass, which is perhaps the most characteristic Sonrai sound of all.With no third degree to give it clear minor or major identity, this scale instantly conveys the mysterious allure of Mali’s desert music. Try throwing in a G-to-G# trill to add a dark, bluesy edge, and you will hear why people connect this music to the oldest Delta blues.
On Niger, Bocoum uses a capo to transpose all three of these modalities, so that few songs unfold in the same key. He takes the odd choice solo, but mostly confines himself to those rugged, mesmerizing accompaniment melodies and luminous unison passages with the other players. Even at its simplest, this is soulful music—and for a growing cadre of guitarists around the world, addictive as well.