Mike Atkinson

Ali Farka Touré – Savane

Posted in album reviews, Stylus by Mike A on August 30, 2006

Originally published in Stylus magazine.

Completed just before Ali Farka Touré’s death in March of this year, the posthumously released Savane forms the final part of a trilogy of recent Malian albums to be recorded in situ on the banks of the River Niger, using World Circuit’s mobile studio at the Hotel Mandé in Bamako. Sonically speaking, it sits somewhere in the middle of its two companions: the lush arrangements of Boulevard De L’independence from Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, and the set of stripped-down improvisational duets between Touré and Diabaté which made up the Grammy Award-winning In the Heart of the Moon.

What all three albums share is a distinct sense of place. With Savane in particular, the slightly echoing acoustics of the recording location are quite wonderfully represented, evoking images of a cool, capacious interior space, whose bare, solid walls shade it from the light and heat outside. (Then again, it’s easy to project.)

As such, Savane feels very much like a daytime album, best suited for afternoons and early evenings. There’s nothing of the night here, be it celebratory or carnal—these are mature, thoughtful, clear-headed pieces from a recognized master in his late sixties, whom you sense is comfortable with the authority which both his musical track record and his status in Malian society have bestowed upon him. (For the last two years of his life, Touré served as the mayor of his hometown of Niafunké.)

This sense of authority is carried through to the album’s lyrical content, which touches upon such socially responsible topics as the need for road building in order to integrate Mali’s disparate, multi-lingual population, and for the sale of powered pumps instead of instruments of war. Indeed, the translated lyrics of “Machengoidi” begin with a direct challenge to Touré’s fellow countrymen: “What is your contribution to the development of this country? Who has worked? What has he done?”

It’s not all finger-wagging polemic, though. Many of the songs have their roots in folklore, several concern themselves with the spiritual or the supernatural—and one number, the swirling, violin-led “Hanana,” is an arrangement of a song traditionally performed in celebration of a forthcoming male circumcision.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that for listeners outside Mali—and indeed for most Malians themselves, as Savane is sung in at least four different local languages—the album is bound to fall short of Toure’s introductory statement in the sleeve notes: “It’s not so much the music that’s important, as what you’re saying. But the music has to be good for people to listen to the words.” Happily, the music on display here more than compensates for this loss.

Whereas Touré and Diabaté’s In the Heart of the Moon suffered from a tendency towards aimless, under-baked free-form noodling (Ali picks a riff and strums it for six minutes; Toumani tinkles away over the top; stop, pick a new riff and repeat), Savane benefits from a more considered, structured approach. Sure, there’s plenty of space here for some thrilling improvisational flourishes, such as the arresting interplay of lone guitar and dual ngoni that dominates the title track—but these passages never become overlong or stale.

Indeed, it is this clear mission to innovate—to take traditional song forms, genres, and instrumentations, and to twist them into diversely satisfying new shapes, both rhythmically and texturally—which gives Savane some of its most special qualities. In particular, it is wonderful to hear fresh new mileage being squeezed out of a seemingly played-out genre such as the blues—something which has been happening increasingly over recent years, thanks to the likes of Tinariwen, Boubacar Traoré, and the whole “desert blues” phenomenon.

If Savane has one unifying musical characteristic, it lies in the way that tracks anchor themselves around a central melodic phrase, each repetition ending and briefly pausing on a “base” note, thus locking the mood of each piece into a perpetual state of “coming home.” The overall effect is an intensely reassuring one.

This sense of melodic reassurance is further enhanced by an all-pervading air of calm concentration, engaged collaboration, and a steady, unfussed industry—all of which makes this an exceptionally effective album for de-stressing, and for the soothing of troubled souls. (Trust me on this, for I know of what I speak.)

However, to recommend this album merely as some sort of aural palliative would be to do it a massive disservice. For over and above this, Savane stands out both as Ali Farka Touré’s masterpiece, and as one of contemporary African music’s finest achievements to date. As such, one could not ask for a more fitting memorial to his talent and influence.

Rating: A

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