Afropop staff-writers Sam Backer and Morgan Greenstreet met with Malian guitarist and singer Sidi Touré on his most recent trip to New York. He invited us into his small room in a beautiful West village hotel. Sidi served the writers delicious hot mint tea that he had just finished brewing- the writer sat down on chairs while he sat on the bed, cradling his acoustic guitar and playing quick licks as we spoke. The interview was conducted in French.
Sam Backer.: So, thank you so much for sitting down with us.
Sidi Toure : The pleasure is shared! I am very happy to welcome you and to be with you.
S.B.: Congratulations on your new album, it’s beautiful.
S.T.: Alafia! Thank you! We left the studio tired, but it had to be good, because we recorded after a tour in Europe. We returned to France and after three days rest, we went into the studio for a week. We were tired, but we did it, stopping and starting. And then we did a second part, when we recorded the traditional instruments and the voices in Mali.
S.B.: Basic tracks in Paris and then overdubs in Mali?
S.T.: Almost everything was done in Paris, at least half. We just added the voices and a few traditional instruments, and my nephew, who plays guitar on a few songs. And the traditional flute. But we did the majority of the work in Paris.
S.B.: Was that process different than how you recorded the previous two albums?
S.T.: You know…I don’t know if you will be able to translate this well, because it’s a really African proverb. You know the ram, the big sheep, with the horns? When when he backs up a bit, he can jump further.
I’ll explain it: it means, I have a lot in my belly! Sahel Folk didn’t resemble Koima, which isn’t equal to Alafia. For so long, I didn’t have a producer, I didn’t have… Now, everything that I have in my belly, I want to give it! The fourth album won’t be like the others either. Because I’ve already finished the fourth album!
When you’re a chef, each time you cook for people, you have to make a great meal every time, so the people say it is good! And it’s in that mode that I work.
Morgan Greenstreet.: So you know that it’s good when the people tell you it’s good?
S.T.: Yes. But I’m always open to criticism. For a person to advance, he has to accept that the people say, “This is good, that’s not good.” It’s not up to you to see. In any case, the guy who tells you, “I think…” it’s just so that you can advance. You have to accept criticism to advance.
S.B.: So are the songs on the album older or newer ?
S.T.: They’re new. There are a few which are from Songhai folklore which I have modernized with a lot of arrangement and composition. Otherwise they’re all new songs.
S.B.: Did you write this material after the coup d’etat?
S.T.: I did my album before, after and during the coup!
S.B.: The album before this one, Sahel Folk, was very successful. Did that give you more opportunities to expand your sound on this album? Like adding the flute and the overdubs?
S.T.: It gave me strength! The proof is, I’ve come back to the United States for the third time. The proof is there! And this third time, it gave me inspiration to work for the fourth album. Voila! Really, that gives me so much inspiration.
S.B.: In earlier interviews, you’ve mentioned Ali Farka Touré as an influence. In one, you said that ‘he woke up folk music’- I’m wondering how your awareness of yourself as a “folk” artist comes into play when you’re modernizing tradition? How do you feel as a traditional musician who modernizes traditional folk music?
S.T.: First of all, may Ali Farka Touré rest in peace, may God care for him. If today people talk about Mali, about the resemblance to the blues, it’s thanks to this man. Because he came to United States, and he shows the African roots of blues and jazz. Now, my inspiration comes only from Songhai folklore. I am happy! I play, but I am happy to play! I am very inspired by folklore.
S.B.: But also, you change and ‘modernize’ Songhai folklore, right? What is your method for this?
S.T.: First of all, I have no friend other than my guitar. Inspiration comes to me suddenly; I take my guitar, I search for a good melody and good accompaniment. Then I record it on my cellphone, so I won’t forget it. Sometimes even without my guitar, just singing into my phone. For the composition, certainly there are corrections that have to be made. I approach composition like writing an essay, where you have to do the introduction, the body and the conclusion. That’s how you have to do it.
S.B.: Are your lyrics based on traditional folk music?
S.T.: There are some songs where the lyrics are no more than a phrase, or not even a phrase, just the melody and accompaniment. Because, when I use a phrase, I add to it to reinforce the themes.
M.G.: And the phrases you use, are they traditional proverbs?
S.T.: Of course! We say, when an old African dies, a library burns! African wisdom! Because the old folks have the wisdom!
S.B.: Clearly people in the West, in Europe and America, really like the style of music you play. It’s much more acoustic, more traditional than a lot of the Malian music that we hear. I’m wondering how your music connects with the other bands, and other people now in Mali?
S.T.: Thanks, first of all. From my tender childhood, I was picked up by the regional orchestra of Gao, I was a soloist, a singer. So I was with the instruments, the drums, everything. I spent time during that! Later, when I started working on songs, that’s when Farka Touré’s influence came. He continued to perform solo, with only a calabash. Later he added a bass and a few other instruments, without too much percussion, and that was a success. Why not continue in that direction? Because the acoustic guitar penetrates more than the electric. It’s not that I don’t like the electric guitar. It is more violent, while the acoustic is sweeter, like a woman you caress!
That’s how the idea came to me. My second guitarist, I see that it is the foolishness of youth, he wants to play electric guitar, I say, “No, the acoustic, she is soft, she is sweet.” If you have a well tuned acoustic guitar with just a calabash as the bass, it’s awesome!
M.G.: How is your acoustic style received in Mali?
S.T.: Well, in my region, people really know me and appreciate what I do. But I don’t tour much in Mali. When I play, I only play at the French Cultural Center. But I think after Alafia… I think things take time…You have to give time itself some time! I was one of the first musicians to launch the Festival au Désert, but I’ve never performed at the festival. That’s why I say give it some time, time will judge!
M.G.: Are there also other musicians in Mali who play in a more acoustic style, like you do ?
S.T.: Yes! My friend Bassekou Kouyaté. He only has traditional instruments, everything is acoustic with him! Everything!
M.G.: Even the bass.
S.T.: Yes, the ngoni-ba. Which means the big ngoni. He plays really well. And he is one of the people who encouraged me! When the press asked for a testimony from someone, I called him. He said, “Why not?” He has had connections with great American musicians. But we are Malians, we are brothers, who help each other. And it will work! So thank you, Bassekou Kouyaté.
S.B.: I saw you play on Saturday, at BAM, with a violin player.
S.T.: Yeah, unfortunately, he was sick. And even before he was sick, he…Let’s return to another proverb. We say, “You need a stick to direct a group of sheep; but a group of people, each with his own stick.” I’ll explain it. We were supposed to tour in England, I asked him to bring his passport, he refused to bring his passport. He thinks he is more important. I told him, “I brought you here. I am the leader of this group. I am the one who introduced you into the group. I think your violin could bring me, could bring you yourself more acclaim, and acclaim to traditional music.” He didn’t understand, so I left him. Later he had problems, and I said, “May God grant you health, but I’m done with you.” So instead, I brought a great ngoni player, who is here with me, who is awesome!
M.G.: I think there is a misunderstanding, because Sam was talking about an American violinist you collaborated with here…
S.T.: Oh! Cedric [Watson, a Creole violinist from Louisiana]! Awesome! I thought you were talking about my former traditional violinist. No, Cedric is a virtuoso. The first time we met it was…He saw me play and he said we must play together on his next tour. Because Cedric has African blood. We play two songs together, that in the Songhai milieu, it is the violin that plays the melodies. And he plays that perfectly!
When you have your first child, in whatever country on this planet…What is it that a man or woman wants the most? To have an inheritor, a child. So we say, when a child appears, the family circle applauds at high volume. When this child comes, we praise God, thanking God for giving us this child. Even old people who can’t walk, even if they have to be pushed, they’re going to come to dance! So: God is one; the first child is one; my first encounter with Cedric is one! That’s why I named him Cedric Touré. He is a Touré like me. And Desiree (Champagne, who plays washboard with Cedric) she is also Desiree Touré.
S.B.: Your music gets described sometimes as Malian blues, but in interviews you say no, Malian Folk. So it was interesting to see you engaging with the blues in a more active way when you were playing with Cedric.
S.T.: I understand that people talk about blues because the roots of blues came from Africa. My style and Ali Farka Touré’s style are not the same. I am inspired by Songhai tradition. You could bring six or seven Malian musicians, they will all play Malian music. I play Malian music, but our music will not be the same. So, I have have my own particular style; I insist on the Songhai folklore. And in the Songhai folklore, one feels the blues and things like that, but I’m just playing Songhai folklore.
M.G.: But it seems that when you play with Cedric, you engage the American blues a bit? Is that true?
S.T.: Here’s an example for our music. [Sidi plays a bit on the guitar.] The blues is there. But we play it a little different. [Plays another examples.] We play like that, and one feels the blues in it. An American bluesman can play with that without even rehearsing. He can do his thing with that! He finds himself in that!
It’s due to the cultural diversity of my region and the country itself. Because Mali is like the United States: there are many ethnicities. That’s why I say, there’s no reason for war to come to us, because these are people who’ve lived together since time immemorial. Mali is mixed, so if you make war, you’re going to kill your cousin, your brother, or you father! You see, it’s not good. There are Arab influences in Mali, because we have lived with the Arabs. There are so many influences that come, and grow, and inform the style of Sidi Touré.
S.B.: Did you change your style when you played with Cedric?
S.T.: No! He plays in the avenue of the first-born son! This piece [plays and sings] we play with the violin!
S.T.: We play that with the tradition violin, and he plays it exactly, plus his American influences! It’s awesome. The second song we play, a Tuareg piece, he also plays that marvelously well.
S.B.: Do you have plans to record with him ?
S.T.: In the future, yes. My wish is that he will participate on the fourth album. Why not come to Mali and tour together in Africa? Because it would be like a form of pilgrimage for Cedric, because he’s always proud of his African roots. That’s why I say he’s from the Touré family.
S.B.: You said you switched the traditional violinist in your band for the ngoni player Abdoulaye Kandiafa Koné. How did you meet him?
S.T.: He is a virtuoso. He’s the best of his generation! He is one of the best of his generation.
M.G.: He’s young, right?
S.T.: He’s 26 years old. I played in the National Orchestra with his uncle. So, by a miracle, I was over at a friend’s place, who is friends with his uncle. So my friend invited them over. We were all there. My friend also plays guitar, we learned guitar together. So his uncle also plays ngoni, and the nephew came with him. We tuned up and started to play. My God! When I played, he appreciated me. He said, “No, I have to play with you.” I said, “You too, you have a beautiful touch. Let me take your number, it could happen, you never know.” When my traditional violinist started doing his little nonsense, I called my producer, and he said, “You spoke to me of another traditional musician. Can you call him?” I called him, and asked, “Do you have a passport?” He said yes, but it was expired. I said, “Not a problem, come, bring your passport and I’ll get you a passport.” We talked about the details of the contract, and he accepted. Now, even if we’re not on tour, he doesn’t let a week pass without coming over to my house.
His touch, let’s say it’s diabolical! Because, like I said, I’ve from a region that has many styles: There’s a style called takamba, which the ngoni plays. When the people here my ngoni player, they think it is someone from Gao who is playing. I tell them that he doesn’t even know the route to Gao! He’s just a really good musician! He’s a griot, he’s from the Kayes region. But from father to son, he plays the ngoni. Even his uncle, who is a guitarist, he also plays the ngoni! But Kandiafa, he’s exceptional. In whatever style you give him, he plays perfectly! There isn’t a style that he can’t play! So when people listen to the album, Alafia, they think he is a really great ngoni player from Gao. I tell them, “No, it’s Kandiafa playing!” I’ve seen a lot of traditional musicians play, he’s a traditional musician who inspires me and gives me strength. When he picks up his ngoni and plays, I’m immediately inspired, no matter what he plays. It’s fabulous!
S.B.: He’s amazing! I was sitting there with my mouth open! Looking ahead, do you know where you’re going to record the fourth album? Do you have plans to tour with a larger ensemble?
S.T.: For touring, everything depends on my producer, the label and the tour manager. Those are the three that work on that stuff. I know that I’m working on the fourth album before the cycle of the third album is finished. The songs are already there, but we will always work more on them later, bring them up the highest standard.
S.B.: Anything you want to add?
ST: You see that I am just a man with a guitar. I need materials! I want to start a school, in Mali, a school to teach traditional instruments to the young generation. In my family we don’t sing: they didn’t want me to sing, it was only later that they accepted it. But my mother plays violin. Mystical things. In Gao, there is only one woman who plays violin. If she dies today, there is no one to replace her. We need to initiate the young women. So the things that are deep in me. A proverb says, to dance, the lame man needs feet. All my project need means to succeed. Money is the key of the world, it opens and closes everything.
MG: Thank you so much for speaking with us, for singing, and for the tea! It was really good!