Sunday, September 11, 2011

Electric Blues from the Sahara

In 1999 I acquired a copy of an Ali Farka Toure album. It was my introduction to African music. Ali was first described to me as the "African Bob Marley", a comment which, stereotypical of an American university student, initially appealed to me. It's an assertion which now comes off as ridiculously under-informed, a shortcut to thinking as Mr. Morrison would say. Though I appreciated its novelty, the affair was brief, the music didn't stick, and I was in the midst of discovering Miles Davis, so perhaps I wasn't quite ready for it.

African music has come a long way in the decade or so since my first foray into it, and we no longer need to make unthinking statements like, "The African Bob Marley". Unquestionably, the internet has been the harbinger of musical fortune when it comes to the unearthing of rare treasures from around the globe. I think it's fair to say our musical sensibilities, if we allow them to take hold, are able to grow exponentially in the climate fostered by the world of the internet. The good people who procure and share the wealth have become almost as important as the music itself, for without them we would never be able to hear and learn about stuff like Desert Blues. It ultimately allows us to extend beyond the typically narrow temporal, race and gender-specific fields of vision in which we tend to pigeonhole ourselves. For me at least, music has always been the central gateway from which I set out to discover unfamiliar histories and cultures. Undoubtedly, an understanding of the various musics of a people suggests at least some understanding of their traditions and history, etc.

Late 2004 I had my precipitating African music moment when I first heard Tinariwen's Amassakoul. I felt like I was in possession of something truly rare and significant. Cranking that album to deafening levels in my Circuit City bought Sennheisers brought me tears of euphoria. I simply could not believe this kind of music existed. In many ways it was the album that set me on the path of discovery. Like Steve Martin enthusiastically exclaimed when hearing a jazz number in The Jerk: "If this is out there, think how much more is out there!"
Ali Farka Toure ca. early 1970s
At that time there was literally one internet page (that I could find) that had any unique biographical information on Tinariwen. Now the band is a huge international success, their most recent album involving a collaboration with the guys from TV on the Radio. As great as they still are, nothing the band has done since approaches the high energy, electric Amassakoul. The last several years have seen a great number of recordings from Tuareg bands like Tartit and Group Inerane and, while not nearly as well-known internationally, they should be among the earliest selections if one wishes to reference the rawest of the Desert Blues sound.

Lobi Traore
Martin Scorsese's first volume of his Blues series did a lot to bring African Blues into the the public eye. In it the great Corey Harris visits West Africa and meets various musicians, Ali Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate and Malian star Habibe Koite among them. The connection between American bluesmen like John Lee Hooker and Ali are highlighted. Early deep Delta Blues performers like Charley Patton and Son House are juxtaposed with indigenous African rhythms, revealing some of the similarities and the reciprocity between African and Delta Blues.

A great website for music of this sort and other African stuff is freedomblues. I've been visiting the site for years and owe a great thanks to nauma for his fantastic shares and information over there.

The mix here will not surprise anyone with deeper interest in Desert Blues. It's more of a primer, a selection of the songs that have been with me the last several years. If you have any appreciation for American Blues and an operative pulse, I guarantee you cannot possibly be disappointed with this selection.

Just a song before you go:


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