Ali Farka Touré died this past weekend, at the (approximate) age of 67.
It is dangerous to make any big pronouncement about Touré's music, especially since I have only two albums, Talking Timbuktu and Radio Mali. Suffice it to say that along with Amadou and Mariam, my Malian blues CDs have gotten a lot of play in my house. Touré sings in Malian languages like Peul (or Fula) and Tamasheck, which I obviously don't understand. But there is something quietly powerful about the his guitar playing and the sound of the vocals nonetheless. It's a sound that is warm and real -- the best word for it might be "soul-restoring."
As with Nigerian Fela Kuti, in crafting his sound Touré took his local musical traditions and instruments (like the Njarka, a one-stringed violin) and melded them with an emerging musical form from African American music -- in this case, the guitar blues of people like John Lee Hooker. (For his part, Fela Kuti adapted James Brown and Afro-American funk. It's an interesting circle of influence, as musicologists have widely recognized that the blues itself likely derives from west African and Arabic musical styles. So these west African musicians were re-appropriating a style of music that their own ancestors had effectively invented, but which had turned into something quite different through the mediating effects of the Middle Passage and the U.S. popular culture machine.
The Malian scholar Manthia Diawara, who teaches African film at NYU, writes about some of these interesting cross-Atlantic cultural currents in an article here. For Diawara, the borrowing and experimentalism of musicians like Touré and Sali Keita is all a product of the energy and optimism of the 1960s -- youth style in Bamako.
Like Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Farka Touré's popularity in the west was jump-started through the efforts of a western producer (in this case, Ry Cooder), who added an additional degree of fusion and a high-gloss production quality in the CDs he did with Touré. These are the CDs that first got distributed in large numbers on major labels in the U.S., and they are, admittedly, the CDs that found their way into my collection some years ago.
I would highly recommend a 25 minute session with Ali Farka Touré that you can listen to via streaming audio at Afropop Worldwide. Bonnie Raitt is the host, but most of the session is just music. Give it a try; you can put it on in the background and do other stuff.
And here is the most detailed biography of Ali Farka Touré I could find on the internet.