Vieux Farka Touré: 'For the first two years I played guitar in secret'

Son of the legendary Ali on China in Africa and defying his father

To say that Vieux Farka Touré was something of a late starter when it came to learning the guitar is an understatement. Now one of Africa’s most celebrated living musicians, the Malian maestro only began studying the instrument when he was 20 years old. Then again, such hesitance to play is understandable when you have the pressure of being a son to one of the world’s best-known guitar players.

‘You know, for the first two years of playing the guitar I did so in secret because I did not want people talking about the son of Ali picking up the guitar – I did not want this attention,’ he says. ‘It was only when I graduated from music school and met my manager who convinced me to record my first album that I found the courage to reveal to my father and my other elders that I had been training on the guitar in secret.’

Another factor in Touré’s reluctance to go public with his guitar playing was his father’s vehement opposition to him entering the music industry. Ali’s Malian-infused blues put him alongside the likes of Fela Kuti in the pantheon of African musical greats, yet he had little affection for the music business.

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Ali Farka Touré

‘My father had many bad experiences in the music industry; there were several instances when people from France or elsewhere in Europe took advantage of him because he could not read or write and exploited him and stole from him,’ explains Touré. ‘So he really hated the business of music and he did not want to see me in the same situations that he was in.’

Given the Tourés’ ancestral line of warriors, Ali wanted Vieux to become a soldier instead. He admits it was difficult to pursue his passion for music in the face of such opposition, especially coming from ‘a man with the respect of the entire country’. Yet Touré didn’t only gain a natural aptitude for the guitar from his father, he also inherited his stubbornness.

‘I am not the same man as he was,’ he says. ‘I have been to school, even to college and to a masters programme; I can read my own contracts and I am not vulnerable in that same way. In the end, he was okay with me pursuing my career in music because he saw that I was determined to succeed and that I had a true love for music in my heart. He gave me the name “Farka” to add to my professional name just like he had. “Farka” means donkey in our language; Ali was given this name because he was stubborn and so am I.’


Having acquiesced, an ailing Ali even agreed to pick up the guitar to contribute to his son’s debut album. The elder Touré lost his battle with cancer in 2006, but reportedly spent his final days proudly playing the rough tapes of his son’s eponymous LP to visitors at his bedside, having found the strength to play on a number of tracks. ‘I still get emotional when I think about that day in the studio,’ says Touré. ‘That was a very important and emotional moment for me in my life. It was as if he was giving me a piece of his soul on that day to take with me for the rest of my life.’

Touré is doing far more than merely continuing his father’s legacy, however. While his first record contained many unmistakable hallmarks of the Ali Farka Touré sound, he’s since forged his own musical path, taking in jazz and pop influences through collaborations with singer-songwriters Idan Raichel and Julia Easterlin along the way.

‘There is only one Ali Farka Touré,’ says Touré when asked about the impact of his father’s legacy on his own sound. ‘My music has the same foundation, but it is a very different style. Ali blazed a trail by taking traditional music from Mali and pushing it forward, and I think I am also doing that for my generation, so my path is new for me just as his was new to him.’

Nevertheless while Touré says he is excited to take this music into ‘unknown territory’, he remains conscious of the need ‘to stay true to my roots and to keep the strong identity of Mali at the forefront of the music.’ Nowhere is this more evident than on his 2013 album Mon Pays, a stirring tribute to the beauty and strength of a country that had been rocked by the rise of Islamist separatists in the north.

‘Giving people hope and inspiration is a principle role of a musician – not just in Mali but anywhere across the world, I think,’ says Touré of the record, which was released just a few months after French and Malian forces had driven the separatists from the country. ‘What can I do as a musician? I cannot fight the Islamists with my fists or with guns. What I can do is to inspire the hearts of my brothers and sisters in Mali to resist oppression. This was the idea behind Mon Pays and I hope that it helped to heal our nation in its small way.’


Another major story for Mali in recent years, as with many countries on the African continent, has been the increasing influence of China, and Touré says he is looking forward to visiting the country for the first time. ‘People in Mali, myself included, are very curious about China. There are a lot of people from China in Mali and a lot of Chinese influence. I am looking forward to shopping in China!

'And of course I am very excited to introduce the Chinese public to my music and to see the reaction there. I put a lot of energy into my show from the stage; I try very hard to make a personal connection to the audience. So [Shanghai] can expect a show that is unlike what they have heard before, and to have a cool experience with a Mali guitarist who loves to rock and get people out of their seats to dance.'

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