Some music is intensely personal. Without even understanding the words, one may experience a visceral reaction, shivers down the backbone. You don’t need to understand the words to be moved by, say, gospel choirs or negro spirituals. The flow transcends the ordinary and we get carried away as if borne by a river.
Yet, as much as we may be surprised or enervated by these sounds, it is their familiarity which attracts us. As Martin Scorsese writes in his introduction to The Blues, a seven-part series of films about that most pervasive of popular musical forms, “We like to imagine that art can come out of nowhere and shock us like nothing we’ve ever seen or heard before. The greater truth is that everything – every painting, every play, every song – comes out of something that precedes it. It’s a chain of human responses. The beauty of art and the power of art is that it can never be standardized or mechanized. It has to be a human exchange, passed down hand to hand, or it’s not art.”
Refinements occur, but the DNA remains.
And so, the blues and jazz have their roots in music transported from Africa. (According to Son No.1 in his university thesis, the segregated white population of the southern states of America in the 1920s presumably didn’t know that the movements of the popular dance the Charleston were derived from African tribal dances transported to the USA with the slaves.)
In recent years, thanks to readily portable recording equipment and cheap air fares (and an increasingly inquisitive audience), we have been privileged to hear some of those sounds which lay at the root of popular music.
One of those ‘pioneers of the blues’, Ali Farka Toure, died yesterday in the Mali capital, Barnako.
He was the finest, most influential and best-loved guitarist in Africa. The “godfather of the desert blues“, he was the first African musician to show, through his often hypnotic, rhythmic and self-assured playing, that the blues had originated in his home country, out on the edge of the Sahara.
His work certainly echoed the blues – and, in particular, the playing of John Lee Hooker – but it was a comparison that first boosted his career, and then infuriated him. He told me that he played African music, not blues, and that “this music has been taken from here. I play traditional music and I don’t know what blues is. For me, blues is a type of soap powder.”
He couldn’t read or write and would describe himself as a farmer, which he was in his home town of Niafunke where he earned his nickname of Farka, or donkey (which is certainly no insult in Mali) because of his strength. He was the first surviving child in a family where nine elder brothers had died in infancy. He started out as a farmer, boatman, mechanic and tailor and became interested in music after watching religious spirit ceremonies on the banks of the Niger.
First he learned to play such traditional instruments as the lute-like n’goni, the djerkel (a traditional single-stringed guitar) and the njarka violin. He switched to guitar after hearing the great Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba, and insisting: “I have as much music as him.”
And while I typed this I played his classic album, Talking Timbuktu, recorded with Ry Cooder, one of the greatest blues guitarists I’ve been privileged to hear live.
And so the music flows on.