Ali Farka Toure—King of the Blues
Ali Ibrahim “Farka” Toure was born in Niafunke, Mali in 1939 (the exact date is unknown). He was the first of ten sons to survive past infancy, and his parents thus gave him the nickname “Farka,” which means “donkey,” in honor of his tenacity. In his lifetime, he became one of Africa’s most beloved musicians, and a superstar on the world music stage. He died of bone cancer on March 7, 2006.
Ali Farka Toure was not born into the traditional griot or jeli caste, the traditional lineage of most West African musicians. Rather, he was from a caste of soldiers, called the arma. However, Ali Farka decided that he wanted to be a musician and defied his family’s wishes that he become a soldier. History repeated itself when his son, Vieux Farka Toure, also wanted to become a musician, and Ali Farka tried to encourage him to become a soldier, eventually relenting.
Ali Farka Toure played both guitar and njarka (a one-stringed fiddle-like instrument). His style was one that Westerners dubbed “the African blues,” and indeed, it bore a striking (and entirely non-coincidental) resemblance to the American blues, though Toure’s style was in fact evolved from a common ancestor to the blues, and was not necessarily a product of Toure’s having heard American blues or early rock music.
Ali Farka Toure recorded with many international musicians, including Western musicians such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and Corey Harris, and legendary Malian kora player Toumani Diabate. His final recordings were made with his son, Vieux Farka Toure.
In 2004, Ali Farka Toure became the mayor of the small town where he grew up, Niafunke, in the Malian region of Tombouctou. The town was impoverished and run-down, and Toure spent his own money to fix the roads, build a sewage system, and otherwise vastly improve the town’s infrastructure, and thus the lives of his fellow villagers.