Songs of Gao: An Interview with Mali's Sidi Touré
The worthy successor to Ali Farka Touré. — Bassekou Kouyaté
Mali’s Sidi Touré sings the traditions of his Malian culture and beyond on his Thrill Jockey debut “Sahel Folk”
Sidi Touré made his first guitar as a child, constructing it from his wooden writing slate in the ancient town of Gao, Mali. Once the heart of the Songhaï empire and burial place of its Askia kings, the town rests between the Niger and the encroaching ocean of sand known as the Sahara Desert. The Songhai empire was the last of the great empires of the Sahel, reaching its zenith under Soni Alibert (Sunni Ali) in the mid 400’s. Sidi Touré was born here in 1959, but to be born a Touré, a noble family who trace their lineage directly from the Askia kings, carried a significance and onus of a past that reaches directly into the present. Like another Malian noble turned singer, Salif Keita, Sidi Touré faced a conflict between the inexorable pull of music and the expectations of family and society. Touré’s family had been sung about, and sung to, by traditional griots for centuries, but until a small boy challenged the rules, the Touré’s did not sing!
Despite his family’s disapproval (Sidi’s older brother would often break his homemade guitars in protest), Touré became the lead singer of his school’s band. In 1976, Touré became the youngest member of Gao’s regional orchestra, the Songhaï Stars, who played bi-annual festivals like the Bamako Biennale and toured both regionally and nationally. Early on, etiquette and convention demanded that he sang in Bambara, the regional language, which often found Touré singing lyrics in a vernacular he did not understand. This changed in 1984, when he won the award for best singer for “Manou Tchirey,” a song of his own, written in the Songhaï language. After winning the same award an unprecedented second time in 1986, he took the band to the northern regions of Mali and to Niger, where Songhaï was spoken regularly, and toured much of the western Sahel region.
Sidi does not, however, only focus on the traditions of Songhaï to inform his music. As a young man, he would often be seen sporting a leather jacket and sunglasses and listening to J.J. Cale and Kenny Rogers. Sidi’s sound both captures and challenges his roots. The music moves from the translucent swaying takamba to the trance inducing Holley, while the lyrics often address many non-traditional issues.
At its heart, Sahel Folk is an album of friends reuniting around a glass of tea. It’s Sidi Touré’s second album, but the first time most of his collaborators have been documented. Chronicled in a live “field-recording” style at Sidi’s sister’s house, the simplicity of the takes highlight the beauty of the songs and the skill of the players. Each track on the album is a duet recording of Sidi and one friend, a product of a very specific two-day process. On the first day, the friends would meet, play, and choose a song over a glass of tea. On the second day they would record the song, allowing themselves just two takes to retain the spontaneity of the recording and reunion. It was the original intent of Covalesky, the album’s producer, to create an historical document about the traditions of Gao, and to mix the audio of Sidi and his friends’ songs with street recordings and interviews. However, once the recording started, everything changed. Covalesky puts it best when he says “In the face of such beauty and power delivered so simply by Sidi Touré and his friends, there was nothing to add. Everything was there.”
MundoVibe interviewed Sidi Touré via e-mail FROM MALI for this exclusive interview
MundoVibe: As a child you were inspired to create music. What was the source of this inspiration?
Sidi Touré: My mother played traditional violin, the possession music’s violin, but she used to play only at home, never in public. She was the only person in the family who played music, maybe she is the source of my inspiration, I don’t know. What I know is that from my earliest years, I always sang, music was in my blood! I remember my neighbour told me that I will become a musician. Each time I was at their house and the husband asked me to leave, I said : “wait a little bit, I’m going to sing you a song” so I managed to stay a few extra minutes.
MV: Your family was opposed to your desire to be a musician. How did you overcome this resistance?
Sidi Touré: In my family, no one wanted me to play music, for them only griots can sing, so you can’t come from a noble family and sing, that’s, in an other way, what happened to musicians like Salif Keïta. Now, things have changed and every one can follow his destiny. At this period of time, it was my big brother, more than everyone, who was opposed to my desire. He was the oldest of the family, he studied in the “school of the white” (l’école des blancs), he was a teacher, one of the first, he aimed for excellence, studies above all.
Each time I made a guitar with some pieces of slate, he broke it, it was a way of discouraging me from learning guitar and making me continue my studies. I didn’t want this, music was stronger than everything and my family ended up agreeing. Then my mother call me the griot of the family! I ovecame all of this thanks to love and I am a staunch believer in what I do. I heard people in street telling me “you don’t do something different from playing guitar all the day long, you must look for a real job!” I answered , “You take care of your burning hut, I’ll take care of mine!”
MV: What was it like growing up with music. How did your music reflect your life?
Sidi Touré: You can hear my life in my music. It’s a combat music, committed, I like when things are going ahead, I like people who fight. My songs are not autobiographical, I use proverbs, parables, I sing joy and sadness. But you know, in order to write songs we are in someone else’s shoes, but in reality we talk about ourselves. When I sing “On ne change pas son destin” (“we don’t change our destiny”), it’s about my life, it’s about me.
MV: You were the youngest member of the Songhoï Star. What was this experience like and how did it inspire you?
Sidi Touré: I entered the Songhoï Star in 76, I was 17 years old. Integration was quite easy, the welcome was warm, everybody loved me, thanks to my voice they cherished me. I didn’t play guitar in it, I was a singer and around ’83 we needed a lead singer, so I became it.
With the band, we were able to easily play a very old song in a new way, to modernize it. We spent may hours with Douma Albarka, the lead guitarist, covering songs, during one afternoon we were able to play a repertoire rearranged with guitar, brass wind, drum. We often composed but we liked very much to play songs from the Gao-Gao (Mali) or possession music repertoire, modernizing it, playing it with modern instruments.
At this period of time, we were fortunate because when we played, the shows were sold out, the venues were crowded. We were a united band with really gifted musicians, when you saw us play and if someone told you it’s a regional band, you couldn’t believe it! Because we have the good luck to welcome foreign musicians from Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde. Cultures from these countries formed me. I always said that I didn’t go to music school, I learnt in the “God school”, a lot of people taught me so much things. For example, Narcisse Carvalho came and played in the Songhoï Stars, he was a gifted drummer, a gifted singer, a gifted guitarist, he taught me new chords and gave me a lot.
Besides, we played a lot outside Gao with the Songhoï Star thanks to cultural exchange with Timbuktu, Niger, Algeria, etc. Each time we played, we asked for local musicians who wanted to play with us, we knew why we did so, these meetings enriched us a lot.
MV: Tell us about the role of music in Gao culture — what are its traditions?
Sidi Touré: There are differents musical styles which match different moments of the community life. For exemple, the Gao-Gao is played during great ceremonies, birth of your first child, your first marriage, the sacrament of a traditional village chief. This music is played with a traditional violin, a calabash plunged into the water, small drums and claps.
There is also the Holley, played only with calabash and violin. The role of the Holley is different, it is a possession music, dancers reach the state of trance and become the “horses of the genies “(djinn) so they can communicate with humans.
But this culture tends to disappear, it hurts me! You know, there is only one woman left who still play Gao-Gao violin. She did all she can to introduce young girls, in vain. I’m also guardian of Gao’s music, as long as I will be there, it will not disappear, no, no!
MV: This is really your second recording but your first in which you are being properly represented and compensated for your work. How does it feel to finally get your music out there and to be fairly represented?
Sidi Touré: It is an immense joy! Not everyone has the chance to be listen in Europe and in the USA. Like we say “the work of many days so transitory” After years of difficulty, things are going to get better, some people on the planet believe in what you do, that’s so nice! I can’t compare with my first release “Hoga”, it is as if you compare a fish and a river, that has nothing to do with!
MV: Your music has a timeless feel to it yet you are pushing into new territory with your lyrics. What changes do you want to bring to the traditions that surround music of Gao?
Sidi Touré: I didn’t want the music of Gao, all this beautiful culture, to disappear because, no man is a prophet in his own country, people from Gao don’t know yet how important this culture is, otherwise we already took it in our hand, in Songhaï’s hand and in Malian hand, to protect it. This is a great culture, from Gao-Gao to Holley, from Takamba to Shallo, all this melodies, or even clothing and hairstyle, all this don’t have to disappear. All the Songhaï have to fight for this.
In modernizing I want to build a bridge between Gao-Bamako-Europe-USA. I play songs from the folklore and I try to underline some similarity with other culture, I don’t try to change everything, if you change everything, you loose your blanket, your identity.
MV: Will you continue to sing in your native tongue? What are your feelings about singing in French?
Sidi Touré: Maybe people don’t understand what I sing, but I think that the music is the first step to understanding. I’d like people to understand the words I put in my songs, in order to be useful. I composed a song “Save Your Planet,” about not only saving Africa but saving the whole world; themes like this one have to serve a useful purpose, for me to feel like I am succeeding.
You know, Sidi is a multidimensional singer! I sing not only in Songhaï but in Tamasheq (language of the Touareg), in Moore (language of the Mossi), in French. Inspiration comes, you never know what will happen.
MV: Please tell us about some of the songs on “Sahel Folk”. What are some of the messages and lyrics?
Sidi Touré: ‘Bom Koum’ is a song about a man who lives in opulence and forgets his family and friends. One day he looses everything and comes back to his family but everyone has forgotten him. As the Songhaï saying goes “when the hand rot, it goes back to the owner!”
‘Haallah’ is dedicated to the brave farmer who fights for hours and hours everyday in the field despite wind, drought, blazing sun.
‘Artiatanat’ is a song in Tamasheq in which i urge all the children of Mali to come back home to help in the construction of the country.
‘Bera Nay Wassa’ was created during the preparation of “Sahel Folk”. Before the recording, I called my friend in Gao to propose the project to them, they agreed immediately. During the rehearsal, Douma was playing and I said “why not play a song to pay tribute to you, artists from Gao who didn’t spare their efforts,” ‘Bera Nay Wasa’ was born.
‘Adema’ is a little bit special. This is a song by Jiba Touré, may God rest his soul, on Adema, a Malian political party. In Mali, there are hundreds of political partie. We sang this one because this is the party of the former president Alpha Oumar Konaté. When “Adema” was in power they did “a little bit”, this is this “a little bit” that we sang. If only others political parties did “a little bit” at the end we would have get “a lot”. Imagine if everyone of us pour a water bucket, if we don’t get a river, at least we have a lake!
by Sidi Touré
Thrill Jockey Records
(thrill 256 • 2011)