Ali Farka Touré is well known as one of the most influential and talented guitarists that Africa has ever produced. His legacy and impact are hard to overstate. Ali’s sound merged his much-loved traditional Malian musical styles with distinct elements of the blues, singing in the local languages of Fulfulde, Tamasheq, Songhay and Bambara. The result was the creation of a groundbreaking new genre, now well known as the ‘desert blues’, earning him three Grammy awards, widespread reverence and the nickname of the ‘African John Lee Hooker’.
Though he transcended in 2006, Ali’s musical legacy lives on through his son, Vieux aka “the Hendrix of the Sahara,” an accomplished guitarist and champion of Malian music in his own right. On Ali, his collaborative album with Khruangbin, Vieux pays homage to his father by recreating some of his most resonant work, putting new twists on it while maintaining the original’s integrity. The result is a rightful ode to a legend.
Of course Vieux would choose Khruangbin to honor his dad’s legacy. The trio’s mix of amorphous, psychedelic funk has garnered mass acclaim across various countries and continents, including Ali and Vieux’s beloved Mali. “I wanted to do this tribute with Khruangbin because I adore their music and they are a great example of musicians from a different generation, and from a very different part of the world, who were also inspired and influenced by my father,” Vieux says. “I want this album to convey love. It is about the love that I have for him and that Khruangbin has for his music.”
Yet Ali isn’t just a greatest hits compilation. It’s a lullaby, a remembrance of Ali’s life through known highlights and B-sides from his catalog. In the case of “Diarabi,” for instance, the quartet updates Ali’s original with pronounced drums, resulting in a sound somewhat rooted in R&B yet mysterious and distant. The mood feels sensual here — less meditative, more romantic. Then there’s “Alakarra,” a lesser-known tune. Here, against Donald “DJ” Johnson’s churning funk break and faint coos, Vieux, Khruangbin guitarist Mark Speer and bassist Laura Lee hover in the mix, layering the track with gentle chords that lend to the track’s hypnotism. Ali is a testament to what happens when creativity is approached through open arms and open hearts. “To me, music is magic, it is spontaneous, it is the energy between people,” Vieux says. “I think Khruangbin understands this very well.”
The genesis of the album dates back to 2019, when Khruangbin, coming off their breakthrough album Con Todo el Mundo, was beginning to play to bigger crowds. The record was finished in 2021, as a global pandemic shuttered businesses and forced us to take stock of what Earth was becoming. Indirectly, Ali captures this as a moment of peace within a raging storm, a conversation between past and present without allegiance to suffering. Now, given Khruangbin’s reach as a unit with legions of fans (including the likes of Jay-Z and Paul McCartney), they’re poised to bring Malian music to broader groups of listeners.
If there was pressure to preserve the sanctity of the art, you couldn’t feel it in the studio. Vieux wanted to keep things relaxed and open-ended to preserve the natural improvisation of his father’s music. The guitarist deliberately didn’t say much about the songs that were going to be played. Just relax and be in the moment, Vieux implored. Even the simplest gesture, like Vieux’s dedication to rest and nourishment, comes through sonically. “He was bringing giant fish every day with rice,” Lee says with a smile. “Three or four o’clock, he’d pull out the fish and then that was it. He was done.” The move is refreshing in today’s rise-n-grind environment, in which regular tasks seem immediate though it’s rarely that serious. Indirectly, Vieux was letting the relaxed spirit of his father’s art come through organically. “Not a lot of stuff in the recording process was overthought,” Johnson says. “When you’re in a situation like that, you just rely on instincts and trusting like, ‘OK, this is who I am.” But from that uncertainty comes magic, those fortuitous moments you simply can’t practice. “An awesome thing happens with uncertainty,” Speer says, “where you get into that zone of taking risks or taking a chance and not knowing where it’s going to end up and being like, ‘Let’s just ride that vibe and see what happens.’”
That, in essence, is the mission statement of Ali, a masterful work in which the love surrounding it is just as vital as the music itself. Ali drove it to unforeseen places; Vieux and Khruangbin are spreading the good word to a completely new generation. “I hope it takes them somewhere new, or puts them in a place they haven’t felt or heard,” Lee says. “It is about the love of new friendship and making something beautiful together,” Vieux continues. “It is about pouring your love into something old to make it new again. In the end and in a word it is love, that’s all.”
— Marcus J. Moore
Music Journalist with The New York Times
Author of The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America