I have a confession: I don’t know much about African music. Sure, I’m not completely in the dark — I know the obvious ones like Fela Kuti and Ladysmith Black Mambazo — but much of the genre is so foreign to me that I have been too intimidated to find a real entrance. As a fan of words, I sometimes have difficulty getting into music when I don’t understand the lyrics. African music lies in that realm for me, much like jazz, another form that has kept its secrets hidden from me for much of my listening life.
Luckily for me, Vieux Farka Touré, son of legendary African guitarist (and other genre titan I know) Ali Farka Touré, came to Sugar Nightclub on Monday night of Jazz Fest 2013 to help bridge the gap in my mind between the mysterious, elusive aesthetics of African music and that familiar instrument that speaks to me so deeply, the electric guitar.
Touré’s guitar abilities are so magnificent as to carry on his father’s tremendous legacy with honour, while adding his own modern flavour. The combination of traditional African sounds and rhythms with Touré’s piercing waves of reverberated, distorted electric guitar is unlike anything I’ve heard before. The sounds Touré is able to coax out of the instrument are truly astonishing. I’ve trained my ear with countless hours of research on the electric guitar, and it’s rare that I hear something that takes me to an entirely new world, but that’s just what his guitar playing did for me.
My inability to understand Touré’s French speaking between songs made me feel like a bad Canadian. Though, I judging from the reaction of the crowd as Touré bantered en Française, only a small portion of the crowd would be “good Canadians” by that definition. When nothing verbal is understood, it’s up to the band to be able to convey a feeling, burrow it into the soul and give it meaning. It takes stellar musicianship to accomplish this feat, and that’s something that Touré and his band have in spades. The rhythm section provides a near-overabundance of thumping pulse that was the perfect cradle for the dual-guitar attack of Touré and his acoustic flanker.
When Touré did sing, the feeling in the bar was palpable. His voice has a sort of angelic power, delicate and strong. Even though the words were indecipherable, his tone evoked feelings of power and love, desolation and hope. I don’t think it would have mattered if Touré never opened his mouth.
George Carlin once said about laughter and comedy, “No one is ever more him or her self than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment. They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted.” Vieux Farka Touré is proof that the same is probably true about groove and rhythm. People are open to anything if you get them dancing.