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Vieux Farka Touré is the living definition of "cultural hybrid." He spent part of his youth in a rural town in northeast Mali, another part in a global metropolis. The son of farmer-turned-world-famous guitarist Ali Farka Touré, he grew up away from the spotlight but in the shadow of his father's reputation nonetheless. And though Touré speaks just a pinch of English, he's fluent in both French and Sonhraï, the dialect of his hometown.
Touré's new album, Fondo, released just a few weeks ago, stems from the musician's reflections about being on the road, as well as his struggle to blaze a career path in a place that's far removed from the Hollywood hit machine geographically, spiritually, and culturally. Sung in the languages of Mali—Bambara and French—his songs' literal meanings aren't immediately clear to all listeners, forcing their themes to emerge through the music itself, a hybrid of Chicago blues, rock, reggaeton, traditional Malian, and even a bit of Sun Ra.
City Pages spoke with the artist a few days ago, via his manager and interpreter Deborah Cohen, as he kicked off his latest American tour.
City Pages: When and how did you learn to play the guitar? Also, what drew you to the guitar specifically?
Vieux Farka Touré: I actually started out playing percussion (calabash) in my cousin Afel Bocoum's orchestra in Niafunké. But when I moved to Bamako when I was about 15, I started playing around with the guitar. By the time I was about 20, I told my father this was the instrument I wanted to play and that I wanted to enroll in the National Institute of Arts in Bamako to study guitar. So I have been playing now for about seven years. I can't really say why I picked up the guitar; I think it's just the way it was supposed to be.
CP: Tell us a bit about the title of Fondo and the process of making it.
Touré: "Fondo" means "the road" in my dialect from northern Mali, Sonhraï. It just seemed a natural title since all the songs except "Walé" (which is a traditional song from Timbuktu) I composed while touring over these past two years. "Souba Souba" I wrote in Lisbon, while sitting on a terrace overlooking the river, and "Sarama" started as a riff we'd play at sound check that just kept getting bigger and better until it finally became part of the set list.... I worked on every aspect of this album: composing, arranging, recording, producing, mixing. It was a very satisfying process, really hard work and scary, too, sometimes, but I'm pretty proud of it.
CP: You've mentioned previously that the word "fondo" signifies not just the road you've traveled while on tour but the roads you've taken through life. Do any of the other song titles or lyrics function on this level as well?
Touré: "Fafa" is another one of those words that has a much broader meaning than many American words seem to have. This song is about something that's probably the most important thing in the world to me. The word has to do with unity, harmony, and that deep bond between people that lets them live well and live in peace here on this earth. We can't exist without that, so it's much more than just a word or a song title to me; it's a way of life and the thing that keeps us alive.
CP: What are some of the challenges of playing for audiences who speak a different language than you or are unfamiliar with Malian culture? What are some of the benefits?
Touré: We musicians in Mali feel we have a special responsibility to carry our culture and expose people to it as we travel around the world. It's a great way for people to absorb information about what a culturally rich and wonderful country Mali is. That said, I think music is music: Everybody hears something different and doesn't need to know every word to gain something from it.
CP: What's something your fans may not know about you?
Touré: I'm actually very shy, and it's an effort sometimes for me to speak with so many people I don't know all the time, especially since my English is not very good yet. But I am getting used to it!
CP: How do you make your shyness work to your advantage onstage?
Touré: For me, being onstage is like sleeping or breathing: It's in my nature by now. Every audience is unique, so when I'm performing, I have to figure out how to satisfy each of them, which is a lot of work intellectually, and quite difficult. It's also very comforting. I'm not thinking about me at all but about them, so any shyness I might normally feel gets forgotten.
VIEUX FARKA Touré will play on THURSDAY, JUNE 25, at the CEDAR CULTURAL CENTER; 612.338.2674