Friday, September 13, 2013

Roots Music -- and World Flowers

            I first heard the music of Ali Farka Toure on the public radio show "The World," an international news show with a perfect title. The show also had a perfect, though brief musical interlude to introduce its daily "Geo Quiz" feature with a theme song that sounded to me like something new in the world of sound. I couldn't have said with any confidence, 'Oh that's from Africa.' It was music produced on an electric guitar, but didn't sound like any of the multifarious productions of contemporary Western World guitar players, who if they have not exhausted all possible sounds that could be wrung from the electric guitar could not be faulted for not trying.
            The sound was lively, with bounce and drive, assured, not funky so much as redolent of the place funk was seeking to arrive at once it gave up the hurry and the noise. It was a sound that made the human brain feel knowing and comfortable, even happy with the notion of a challenge by something new. The song made the traffic relax and the driver gladden inside. It was the music to accompany the William Blake sunburst-figure etching titled "Glad Day."
            I couldn't put what I was hearing clearly into any tradition or style I had a name for, or guess at its origin. The context of hearing it on the "The World" gave me the only useful clue.
            OK, I thought. This is what they mean by 'world music.'
            Some time later I happened to hear this now instantly recognizable tune on another NPR show called "Sound & Spirit," unfortunately no longer on the air. The host identified the performer and I somehow kept the name in my memory until I looked through the library's collections of CDs and found one of his albums: Ali Farka Toure. The album, I'm pretty sure, was "Talking Timbuktu Blues," the album that includes a recording of the song that sounded to me like the voice of a new new millennium, the era of universal world culture -- which is where we're headed (if we're headed anywhere this side of the 'eve of destruction'). 
          The Ali Farka Toure song is called "Diaraby."
          In the short run (the new age not quite having arrived), listening to Farka Toure led me to other from his country, Mali, a country that for me had simply occupied a strangely contorted space on the map of West Africa. Now the home Ipod is filled with their musical productions.
            The album "Talking Timbuktu Blues" is a collaboration with American blues guitarist Ry Cooder, a name I was familiar with, though there is relatively little of him and rather a lot of Farka Toure on the record. The affinity between American musicians and the musicians from Mali and other African counties seeking a place on the world stage, and in the commercially profitable Western music market, has given rise to the world music umbrella genre of "African" or "Desert" Blues.
            So my interest was considerable when my son Saul, who was studying classical guitar performance at the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati decided to write a musicology thesis examining the merits of a "roots" connection between American Blues and African music. Others, scholars, record producers, had made the claim that similarities exist between the blues and traditional African music, especially in West African counties like Mali and its neighbors. Some had journeyed to Africa to "discover" the roots of the blues in the music being played there.
            But it turns out -- as I learn from my recent reading of "'African Blues': The Sound and History of a Transatlantic Discourse" by Saul Meyerson-Knox -- the theory doesn't hold up to close examination. Even the genre of American blues, easily recognizable to us by ear, isn't easy to define in purely musical terms. And a lot of water had gone under the bridge since Africans were severed from their homes and condemned to slavery in the New World. Surely so-called traditional African music has evolved in the intervening centuries. What African musicians are playing today is not what their ancestors played three and four hundred years ago. And there were no doubt other influences on the African-Ameircan musicians who began playing and singing the blues in the American South, generally believed to have "rooted" (that word again) in the Mississippi Delta.
            We all believe roots. But flowers and fruits are just important.
            It may turn out that the connection between the blues and West African musicians such as Ali Farka Toure, Tinariwen, Toumani Diabate, Boubacar Traore, Amadou and Miriam, and others is more commercially useful than historically valid or demonstrable by musical theory. But if putting the "blues" label on contemporary African music helps it get a hearing in the West, that's to the good.
            Besides, contemporary collaborations and counter-influences, the synergy that springs up between between musicians here and musicians there have already proved astonishingly fruitful, at least to my ears. These cross-current creations may open our eyes to the realization that the world's artistic productions -- in music, writing, and visuals -- belong to all of us. 
They are the way we will all get together.