Before he died, Mali’s most celebrated guitar troubadour, Ali Farka Touré, told his musician son that as he ventured into other musical worlds, he should let tradition be his compass. Based on this sterling debut, the son has learned well.
These ten spare, powerful, concisely arranged tracks certainly echo the famously bluesy strains of northern Malian traditions, as well as the melodious elegance of Mande and other Malian ethnic styles. But there’s a distinctive voice at the center. From the opener, “Sangaré,” rich with the trademark hypnosis of Sonrai music, young Vieux’s voice carves through a heady swirl of acoustic guitars and percussion with robustness at once akin to and distinct from his father’s unmistakable, keening tenor.
Sometimes the echoes are more than echoes. The late father actually plays lead on two tracks, and notable Ali collaborators, Toumani Diabaté on kora, and Basekou Kouyaté on ngoni, also turn up on a pair of tracks each. “Ana,” among the more unusual tracks, morphs desert blues into reggae with a warm brass section arrangement by North American producers Eric Herman and Dave Ahl. Herman also composes as well as sings and plays guitar on the loping, meditative “Courage.”
This album covers a lot of stylistic ground but coheres wonderfully, aided by Herman’s subtle arranging touches, allowing a voice to emerge here, a backing guitar or flute melody there, just enough to provide shape without disturbing the music’s jammy, organic essence. Ali also bequeathed his son the moniker “Farka,” which means donkey. Ali earned the tag for his stubborn capacity to survive childhood illness, unlike his older siblings. Too soon to know whether Vieux will match his father’s tenacious survival skills, but this is a very good start.