'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass also to the man referred to as the godfather of the desert blues, Ali Farka Toure who has sadly died of bone cancer on March 6, 2006 aged 66.


26th September 1939 was an auspicious moment in time; a proud father held his son up to the midnight cosmos and, in recognition, this babe turned out to be one of the most influential African musicians of all time.


Born in Niafunké, Toure earned his nickname of Farka or Donkey (which, unlike North Africa, is not considered the ultimate insult in Mali) because of his strength. He was the first surviving child in a family where nine elder brothers had died in infancy. Starting out life as farmer, boatman, mechanic and tailor, he became interested in music after watching religious spirit ceremonies on the banks of the Niger, learning firstly to play such traditional instruments as the lute-like n’goni, the djerkel, which is by all accounts a traditional single string guitar and later the njarka violin, finally switching to the guitar after hearing the acclaimed Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba.


His musical career began when he moved to the capital Bamakoto to take on yet another new job as a sound engineer on Radio Mali. Once broadcasting he was able to record his own songs, the radio station owned what was then the only recording studio in Mali. Soon he was sending tapes to France along with photographs of himself. Picked up by Sono Discs, a series of albums, all simply entitled ‘Ali Farka Tourewere released aiming naturally for the French/African market.


The 1986 ‘Red Album’ (called so because of its red cover) cam e to the attention of the British DJ and roots music champion Andy Kershaw. He played it on his show and the reaction was quite remarkable. A representative of the world music scene set out to Mali to track him down. By this time he had returned home after abandoning his job at the radio station and he was found only after a live appeal from the radio station he had departed from.


Once becoming a cult hero in Britain his life was indeed transformed. Come 1987 he would travel to London to record his first album for the World Circuit label catching the tide perfectly, the African and world music boom was just starting and Toure became one of its leading celebrities.


There can be no doubt that Toure was strongly influenced by the late legend of the blues, John Lee Hooker, whose intensely rhythmic style strikes a common chord with African listeners, a comparison that first boosted Toure’s career and then later infuriated him, stating in interviews on more than one occasion that he played African music, not the 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”.


Though Toure was the first of a long line of great musicians from Mali to find fame in the west, he insisted that music was not the only interest in his life. He toured the world and won his first Grammy award for his 1994 collaboration album with Ry Cooder, ‘Talking Timbuktu’. Ry Cooder was interviewed by the British Folk Roots magazine at the height of the album’s success and the comparison between Toure and Hooker would find itself forever joined. Cooder stated “Mali musicians regard Hooker as some kind of messenger, a presence beyond being a blues guy. He plays irregularly, his bar count is funny, he doesn’t change the chords in a normal sort of way and they don’t either so they see something familiar in that. All Farka Toure plays that way, he really is a mirror image of Hooker, he is like the backward version.”


Despite being at the peak of his career, Toure retreated to his home town of Niafunké, where he devoted his time to farming and his role as the local mayor, spending the money he earned from his albums on irrigation and development schemes that transformed the region, making it self-sufficient for food.


In 1999 he released the ‘Niafunké’ album, recorded in his home town at a time when people thought he has been lost forever to other needs and passions. Not to last however for the following year, 2000, he had given up performing but last year released his album ‘In The Heart Of The Moon’ recorded with the world’s leading Kora player Toumani Diabate and last June the duo played together at The Barbican in London. Last month he won a second Grammy for the album with Diabate but he was never to see the award. It was being taken out to him along with the final mixes of his forthcoming album by Nick Gold of the World Circuit label around the period of time he died in his sleep. Gold was quoted as saying that “Ali found things easy for much of his life, confidence to succeed at almost anything he attempted despite the fact he never went to school and could neither read nor write”.


He is survived by a wife and eleven children.


Keith Woods