New blues

Vieux Farka Touré, the son of late Malian music legend Ali Farka Touré, wants to make one thing clear. Though his father was known as the “John Lee Hooker of Mali,” the younger Touré is dealing with a whole new shade of blue.

Heir apparent: Vieux Farka Touré, like his father Ali, is one of Mali’s musical ambassadors to the world.

“He calls it world blues in quotations because there’s a big piece of rock in front of it,” explains Deborah Cohen, who translated for Touré during an interview with Xpress. “His brand of blues is very different from American blues. It’s a framework for how to be happy in life.”

In fact, the guitarist’s recently released self-titled debut (Modiba, 2006) is a buoyant, upbeat collection of songs peppered with complex rhythms and resonant harmonies. No slight to Mr. Hooker, but a listener would be hard pressed to unearth gritty, Mississippi sharecropper angst from Vieux’s soaring guitar chords.

World blues is an emerging genre, that is as-yet undefined by music writers and labels. That leaves musicians wide open to experiment, feeling their way among myriad influences to create a sound that speaks to fans on multiple continents. As if out to prove that very concept, the One World InnerNational Music Celebration (to be held at Deerfields this weekend) has culled cutting-edge artists from as far as Mali and Sierra Leone, and as close by as Washington, D.C., and Greenville, S.C.

How can they keep from singing?

The three-day festival boasts some compelling artists, including Philadelphia’s King Britt, NiyoRah from the Virgin Islands and St. Croix’s Abja. But the show-stealer is likely to be multimember collective Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars.

Mightier than the sword: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have turned personal suffering into a message of hope and healing.

The group was “discovered” by documentary filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles in a refugee camp in Guinea, Africa. The band’s members found each other after fleeing the late-1990s war in Sierra Leone. They had lost everything—their homes, their possessions and their families. Worse, they’d witnessed horrific violence: Some looked on helplessly as relatives were brutally murdered; one man was forced at gunpoint to kill his own child; two musicians suffered amputations. The All Stars came together through music, finding sanctuary in the creation and performance of songs.

“I take all of the people’s problems and make a song of it,” band leader Reuben M. Koroma states in the opening scenes of White and Niles’ documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars: Living Like A Refugee.

To Xpress, he adds, “There was too much bitterness. People use music to express their grief. That is exactly what I did.”

But don’t expect the All Stars’ debut, Living Like A Refugee (Anti, 2006) to plumb the depths of despair. Instead, the members (who number up to 12) infuse their songs with infectious joy buoyed by vocal harmonies.

Their start was more than humble. “One of the band members [Francis John “Franco” Langba] managed to escape [Sierra Leone] with an acoustic guitar,” Koroma recalls. They also cobbled together percussive instruments and let their message be carried by their collective voices. The music, even though professionally recorded, retains that sweet simplicity.

“I never would have imagined it,” songwriter Koroma says of the All Stars’ world tour. “I was just trying to please the audience around me. It all happened like a miracle.”

A bittersweet irony: Koroma was a professional musician in his hometown before the war. Had it not been for the atrocities he survived, it’s likely the rest of the world would never have encountered the All Stars.

But, as fate decreed, the music of the band was not meant for their healing alone. Their upbeat, astoundingly positive songs became the voice of innocent refugees scattered across Guinea. A refugee-aid organization found the group a battered sound system and the guitars needed to take their show on the road. White and Niles’ documentary followed the group first as they toured other Guinean refugee camps and later as they returned to their home country, where they recorded their disc.

The film won not only numerous film-festival awards, but also the support of celebrities such as Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, Ice Cube and Angelina Jolie. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry invited the All Stars to collaborate on a version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” for the Amnesty International compilation Instant Karma.

That project focuses on the current war in Darfur that has forced multitudes into a situation that the All Stars know too well. “When two elephants are fighting / the grass dem’ a-suffer,” they sing in the song “Weapon Conflict.” It’s a simple metaphor drawn from an African proverb, but one aptly descriptive of not only their past, but the present situation of refugees around the globe.

Even though Koroma and company now live peacefully in Sierra Leone, they haven’t forgetten those who have no voice. “Spreading awareness about the refugees,” Koroma offers, “I think people will respond positively.”

Blues is the healer

But back to Touré, who has also been reaping the rewards of positive response. Despite huge pressure to continue the work of his legendary father, the younger musician adds a definitive touch to his world blues.

“He has his own style, and seeing how the crowd reacts, he knows he’s doing the right thing,” Cohen translates.

To understand the passing of the torch from father to son, listen to the moody strains of Ali Farka Touré‘s Niafunké album. Offerings like the shadow-tinged “Mali Dje” are not such a far cry from John Lee Hooker’s menacingly slow later work, “The Healer.” Touré‘s pulsatingly anthemic “Ali’s Here” is as swaggering as Hooker’s “I’m Bad Like Jesse James.”

The elder Touré offered two songs to his son’s debut album. These duets, the expansive “Tabara” and the earthy, rhythmic “Diallo,” usher the listener to the place where the two generations meet and simultaneously part ways.

Of being able to perform with his father, who passed away last year, Vieux says he has no words to describe the experience. “Very warm, very emotional,” he relates.

Surprisingly, Ali didn’t always support his son’s foray into music. The elder Touré, touted by filmmaker Martin Scorsese as “the DNA of the blues,” was inspired by Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba. In 1960 he was exposed to African-American legends Ray Charles, Otis Redding and Hooker, and American roots music began to seep into Touré‘s traditional Malian sound. Though he rose in fame, he was treated poorly during his early recording career in France. Wanting to protect his son from similar abuse, he forbade Vieux to study music.

The talented younger Touré, however, practiced guitar in secret until the age when he was admitted into the National Arts Institute. The mantle of such lineage and responsibility might be difficult for a lesser musician to bear, but a listen to Touré‘s skilled instrumental matching the powerful voice of upcoming performer Issa Bamba on the song “Courage” more than proves Vieux is ready to pick up where his father left off.

After the release of Touré‘s debut last year, the album’s producer, Eric Herman, decided to throw a surprise party, inviting other experimental musicians. The festivities quickly escalated into a jam session, from which evolved the download-only release, Vieux Farka Touré Remixed: UFOs Over Bamako. “Sangare” with Brooklyn-based DJ Center, posted on Touré‘s MySpace page, layers Malian Afropop over dance-floor-ready beats.

“The party transformed into a rave and [Touré] saw what he had been doing transformed already,” Cohen says, speaking for the musician. “That’s what they continued doing on the remix album. He hopes it will bring his music to a wider audience.”

Beyond that, Touré believes now is the time for Malian music. He adds, “It’s up to us, the Malian musicians, to manage that time well that we’re on the world stage.”

One World InnerNational Music Celebration runs Friday, Aug. 17, through Sunday, Aug. 19, at Deerfields in Henderson County’s Horse Shoe community. Tickets: $80-$65 at the gate, and through Harvest Records (258-2999), Namaste (253-6985) and online at

A One World Pre-Party takes place at Bobo Gallery on Thursday, Aug. 16, with DJ Bowie (and including ticket giveaways). 254-3426.

Vieux Farka Touré performs live in the WNCW-88.7 studio on Friday, Aug. 17.

Seriously talented

Corey Harris isn’t known for his one-liners, his practical jokes or fuzzy-warm pop tunes. In fact, the towering musician with his mass of dreadlocks and piercing gaze is more than a little intimidating. Add to that a background in language and anthropology, a recently acquired honorary doctorate in music and several trips to Africa to study the connection between African folk music traditions and American roots and blues music (as documented in the Scorsese’s film, Feel Like Going Home).

But even though Charlottesville, Va.-based Harris looks like he could kick some butt, he channels his ferocious talent into thought-provoking and often boogie-inducing blues, roots and increasingly reggae-flavored songs.

“I’ve been known as a blues musician for so long,” Harris tells Xpress. “I kind of worked my way up to this.” His recently released Zion Crossroads (Telarc, 2007) is dedicated (“livicated,” as Harris writes) to Rasta luminary and Guyanan radical Walter Rodney. In Rasta fashion, Harris wears the colors red, gold and green on the album’s cover, forming the symbol for the African continent with his fingers.

But the musician seems reluctant to serve as a figurehead for any ideology. “I do what I feel I need to do,” he reasons.

And in fact, Harris’ music speaks for him.

“Marcus prophesy ‘bout / the coming of the king / ganga hailing up the Rastafari livity,” he sings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey in “No Peace for the Wicked.” “Sweatshop” deals, Bob Marley style, with social injustice, proclaiming, “You want a decent wage / But they work you just like slavery days.”

“I don’t feel like it’s my responsibility to educate other people,” Harris points out, though his songs are filled with pithy historical and spiritual references. Early in his career, Harris worked as a teacher, and his own studies were influenced by his heritage. Still, in songs like Zions‘s French-language “Afrique (Chez Moi),” he continues to illuminate the connections between the music of the African continent and the U.S.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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