Although no relation to the legendary West African guitarist Ali Farkah Touré, Sidi Touré was also born in Mali and plays in the so-called “Songhai Blues” tradition (Songhai being the name for one of the largest Islamic empires in history, whose ancient capital was Gao, the town in which Sidi resides). In the 1980s, Ali Farkah Touré was “discovered” by several British world music journalists – in particular, Andy Kershaw, who was a BBC programmer at the time. Kershaw played one of Touré’s locally produced recordings (probably a cassette) on his program and received an overwhelming response from the listening audience. In particular, listeners marvelled at the resemblance to American roots blues artists such as John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. There is no evidence (at least that I know of) that Touré ever heard or was influenced by these bluesmen – instead, ethnomusicologists have theorized that this particular strain of American blues was imported by African slaves who embodied the tradition and forms heard in Touré’s playing, which featured a pentatonic (five note scale), hypnotic repetition and a fingering style which provided both melody line and rhythmic accompaniment.
Sidi Touré does a fine job of recapitulating and extending the Songhai Blues tradition popularized by his namesake and predecessor, both on Koima and on his previous Thrill Jockey release, Sahel Folk. However, Sidi ‘s background is somewhat different than Ali Farkah’s. Both were descended from nobility, with families who did not think that music was a properly dignified pursuit for their children. But while Ali Farkah always seemed ambivalent about a musical career and was a bit of a recluse, Sidi embraced music wholeheartedly, first performing in the late 1980s as the vocalist in a regional band, the Songhai Stars. He continued touring with various dance bands throughout the 1990s, while releasing one solo album in 1996. So his two recent CDs on Thrill Jockey are mature statements by someone who knows his way around a guitar – and a vocal.
The earlier release, Sahel Folk, was very much a “back porch” affair – a series of duets recorded informally at Sidi’s sister’s house with various singers and guitarists who stopped by to pay their respects. In contrast, this new CD was recorded in a small studio with a quintet, which consists of a second rhythm guitar, a female voice, a calabash (large hollow gourd) for percussive effects and a sokou (traditional violin). What stands out immediately is the exquisite interplay between the two guitars, with Sidi laying down trance-inducing riffs and improvising around them, while the second guitar supplies a bass line which sometimes includes an n interesting string buzz. Because the solo style itself accommodates both a melody line and a counter-rhythm, the two guitars can sound like three – or even four. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing; this is finger-picking par excellence.
The traditional violin appears on most of CD’s ten tracks, lending a slightly astringent bite to the smoother textures of the guitars and providing even more rhythmic and textural complexity. All instruments are acoustic with only gentle amplification, but the calabash provides a quietly propulsive beat. The quintet’s sound is nimble and buoyant with a solid, righteous groove, leaving no doubt that this is music for dancing. There are few solos per se, but instead a kind of collective group improvisation takes place around each song’s basic riff. Sidi’s vocals are supple and expressive – and occasionally ecstatic — while the female vocalist either sings in unison with Sidi or echoes him in a call and response dialogue.
Koima is relaxed and beguiling start to finish, with an easy virtuosity that never calls attention to itself. The overall effect of the music brings to mind boxer Muhammad Ali’s famous phrase, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This disk and the slightly more mellow Sahel Folk are highly recommended to anyone interested in African music, blues or just vibrant, joyful artistic expression.