Malian Icon Ali Farka Touré’s Seminal ‘Red Returns To Crystalline Sound Via Vinyl (ALBUM REVIEW)

Malian guitar music owes its still growing popularity to the contributions of the iconic singer-songwriter and guitarist Ali Farka Touré and his 1984 Red is one of the first that first drew global fans to the music although it took another four years when in 1988 his self-titled album brought him worldwide fame. The Red (or Red Album) reissue coincides roughly with the 15th anniversary of Ali Farka Toure’s death on March 6, 2006, at the age of 66. 

What separated Touré from the Malian guitarists who preceded him was his mixture of these two elements, a blues-based singing style close to John Lee Hooker and a particularly African choice of subject matter, often rooted in West African myth and folktale. As he did on this release and several that followed, Touré performed here accompanied by a single percussionist relying mostly on his engaging voice and the counterpoint of his rhythmic guitar. While he sings in several different languages, including English, the power and creativity of Touré’s compositions easily transcend language barrier. This album and the progression toward his 1988 self-titled ignited a new marriage of American blues and African musical traditions. From Red, Touré went on to record ten albums over the next 20 years.

In 1982, Touré, then still in the early years of his recording career, teamed up with the brilliant percussionist Hama Sankare. Together, from a base in Ali’s home village of Niafunké, they traveled through Northern Mali refining a collection of new songs. Intent on recording, they followed the River Niger as it wound down through the desert to the capital city of Bamako. In one afternoon, the great Radio Mali house engineer Boubacar Traore captured these eight superb performances on two microphones: two voices so close it was thought they were double-tracked, one guitar (the distinctive Bulgarian acoustic model that Ali treasured), and Hama’s calabash percussion making its first appearance on record. The guitar playing is so brilliant that as a listener, you might swear you’re hearing two guitars, not just the one.  The album, which includes some of Touré’s best-loved songs, was released self-titled with no sleeve notes, just a group photo on the cover. It became known as the “Red” album due to the color of its original sleeve.

Vinyl and cassette copies of Red began to circulate in West Africa, as well as making their way to Ry Cooder in the U.S. and to specialist journalists and DJs in the U.K. and France. Notice began to build slowly but accelerated to the point where eventually Malian music of its kind became one of the most popular types in the broad category of world music.  Think of Red as the spark as the album was popular in Mali and the Tuareg refugee camps in Libya, where it became an influence on the musicians who came together as Tinariwen. Since then, we’ve heard plenty of examples from that band, who has made an amazing impression on roots and blues artists here in the states. Eric Bibb’s 2012 Brothers in Bamako and his 2018 Global Griot are two excellent examples of this marriage of Malian and American blues.

The premiere label responsible for the global appeal of African music and the one behind this reissue is World Circuit. They released two posthumous collaboration of Touré with master kora player Toumani Diabaté. In 2020 the label unveiled a collaboration between legends Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela. The album Rejoice (covered on these pages) enjoyed worldwide critical acclaim and featured in numerous Albums of the Year polls. Last year also saw the release of Touré protégé, celebrated guitarist and songwriter Afel Bocoum’s latest record, Lindé (also covered on these pages).

Yet, Red is arguably the seed from which the appeal of Malian music and much of African music blossomed. You can now hear these raw unadorned sessions in crystalline sound where Touré’s vocals and his guitar stylings are fascinating.

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