It’s tricky to review a performance by Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré not because there isn’t much to say, but because he sings mainly in Bambara and French. So, something is lost to the language barrier, but something else is gained — without understanding the lyrics it’s possible to become immersed in the music, the rhythms and the interesting connections Touré makes between African and American sounds.
Opening Touré‘s Friday night show at the Orange Peel was Sri Lankan-American singer/songwriter Bhi Bhiman, who performed solo and acoustic. His simple finger-style guitar style was old-timey — as were his suit and driver’s cap. But a quick listen to Bhiman’s lyrics (no language barrier there) revealed a very modern story-teller using older American music styles as a jumping-off point. “We got married in the Wal-Mart down by the franks and beans,” he sang in the song “Ballerina.” Another song, with the lovelorn refrain, “I’ve got my eye on you,” morphed into CeLo’s “Crazy,” showcasing Bhiman’s considerable vocal prowess.
The evening truly belonged to Touré, though. Performing this time as part of a trio (he’s appeared in Asheville on a number of occasions, in a number of lineups), Touré took the stage with bassist Mamadou Sidibe and drummer Tim Keiper. The group started off slow, with a pulsating, meditative number that, even without full-on percussion, had the crowd on its feet.
For the second song, Keiper moved to the calabash, adding a combination of strung shells and chop sticks for a variety of sounds (think: fogs and crickets) on the hand drum. But after that, Keiper was back to the drum kit and the show quickly picked up pace, delving into psychedelic rock territory.
Something about the repetitive nature of African rhythms lends itself to psychedelic soundscapes, but Touré‘s take seems to have another motivation. Touré is the son of the late, celebrated Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, who is often credited with creating the bridge between Malian music and American blues music. (He’s referenced in PBS series The Blues, produced by Martin Scorsese.) Vieux seems to be continuing in his father’s tradition of bridging African and American sounds, but he’s departed from folk blues in favor of electric rock.
During the Orange Peel show, rhythms built to frantic pacing, Vieux’s fingers flew over his guitar, the ebbing meditative quality of the first few songs gave way to an intensity that called to mind the southern rock and British rock of the 70s — and yet even at the pinnacle of the jam and whirl and chaos, Vieux remained a calm eye of the storm, completely in control and never missing a note. His facial expressions vary only from utterly peaceful to serenely happy. (The band, too, was well-practiced and able to turn on a dime with the slightest of signals from their leader.)
A high point of the evening was when Vieux led a call-and-response on “Amani Quai” from his new album, The Secret. The audience eagerly added to the chorus while Vieux’s guitar solos added layers of texture and color to an evening already rich in both.
Here’s a video of the last couple minutes of the “Amani Quai” jam:
Video by Jake Frankel