Nells jazz & Blues (South Kensington)
When I was faced with the opportunity to go to Vieux Farka Touré’s show in the South of London I was ecstatic. For me, the musical legacy of Vieux’s pioneering father; Ali Farka Touré would have been enough in itself, however the beautiful albums that have preceded Vieux Farka Tourés musical career make it clear that Vieux is expressing an innovative and personal style, differing from his fathers, but still remaining within the legacy.
A quick note on the legacy of Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006). Touré is one of Africa’s most internationally renowned artists. Ali Farka Touré took the electric guitar, so far belonging to the American blues, and innovated an eclectic genre combining West African musical traditions with the blues. All the while arguing that the blues is historically derived from African musical traditions anyway. In this sense, by playing the African blues and being one of the first Malian musicians to take his music out of Mali and take it global, out of Africa, Ali Farka Touré managed to attain some African ownership over blues music, that had previously been incorrectly and wholly associated globally within a purely American context. This thus changed the face and historical make-up of North West African music from an outsiders perspective, and from an insiders, created a new platform of music making.
Ali Farka Touré was born into a family of warriors, not musicians. In Mali and much of North/West African traditions, musicians are born into their musical families, and thus learn hereditarily, these families and musicians are called ‘griots’ or ‘jeli’ and they become the leading authoritative on all things to do with their instruments, be it a Kora or a Balafon, or percussion such as a calabash. Neither Ali nor Vieux were born into this griot family, and so it was quite strange at first to have an non-jeli learn the musical ways. However, after some convincing Ali Farka Touré allowed Vieux to learn to be a musician after family friend Toumani Diabaté convinced Ali. Diabaté being a famous Malian griot family learned in the Kora.
Since Vieux began a debut album, of which his father Ali features as well as Toumani Diabaté. Vieux’s father sadly died in 2006 before the completion of the album, however was noted to have been proud, and listened to the self titled album ‘Vieux Farka Touré’ whilst waiting peacefully to pass. Vieux also decided to continue his fathers charitable legacy by donating 10% of all proceeds from his debut to the Modiba’s “Fight Malaria” campaign in Niafunké.
Vieux has since has a lustrous career touring and playing all manor of festivals and releasing over 5 studio albums, and plenty of live renditions as well as opening the FIFA World Cup in South African in 2010 as well as many other honourable appearances and collaborations.
It is on this Saturday night in lovely South London however, that in an intimate 200 capacity venue, Vieux Farka Touré has travelled from Mali to play his first ever solo show. Having never played without fellow musicians, Vieux reflected on stage:
“I remember when I was in school, very young, and my father comes to get me out of school and says ‘you are coming with me, do you want to come with me to play around the world” to which I replied… of course” Vieux spoke with a clear conviction, drawing the entire audience into his stories and pauses at comically pleasing moments, creating a reaction of laughs. He smiles cheekily and continues, enjoying the rapport.
“When we got to the stage, we look out at 500 people, and he says ‘Ok, you go on stage now. Play three songs and you open for me’”
Vieux jokes about how nervous he was, and how his three songs must have lasted 4 minutes in total..
“My point is, is that that was my first time I played in front of people, and here I am about to play for the first time by self, here in London, or ever. Thank you for being a part of this”.
From this introduction, the evening was set to be something special. Another way in which the energy of the evening was mapped out by our host, is in his unusual request the audience sit on the floor.
Nells Jazz & Blues is a intimate venue, with a small but special 200 capacity, a slight raised level from the entrance and with the bar and some seating tables on the outskirts and with a small standing pit hugging around the stage. Vieux’s request we sit on the floor came as the audience, whilst waiting, were perched on the floor. Upon standing for Vieux’s appearance on stage, he quickly suggested we all sat again so that the entire audience would have a chance at a descent view and in order for “everyone to feel like we are at home together”. This was met with rounds of applause and support, and thus, the entire audience found a seat on the floor, ensuring a sacred view for all.
The stage at Nells is set for serious music. With home made signs everywhere saying “shhhhhhh when the music is playing” and with no fancy back drops, no crazy light show, very little, if not anything to distract from the artist and their music. This set up must be regular for the venue as it is held in very high respect, thus is known for attracting a serious music lovers demographic. Not a venue to go and listen to background music, nor a venue to go and chat throughout. This in mind, as Vieux started to play, the audience obeyed and sat in near silence whilst the distinct saharan blues guitar sounds resonated throughout the small intimate room.
Vieux and his guitar.
From 8:30pm- 10:30pm we were treated to beautiful original compositions, songs for his wife, songs of travelling, but also dedications and odes to his father Ali Farka Touré. Vieux played the his electric acoustic guitar in the ways that are distinctive to the legacy of him and his father. The sounds of playing kora pieces on a 6 string guitar, such as playing the bass consistently throughout with the thumb on the bass strings, and thus adding the cyclical melodic variants on the higher three strings. Playing in slight variations of the pentatonic scale lends the blues to the tonality.
He told us that all of his family where here at the gig to hear him play his first solo gig, perhaps they could be noticed as one of those unable to stop dancing and smiling for one single beat throughout the show.
What struck me was the crips sound of Vieux’s guitar. With such clear character, almost metallic, perhaps likening to the West African tradition of adding a ‘buzz’ aesthetic to their instruments, the effect definitely lends favour to the long instrumental pulsating guitar lines. All while singing in his deep, almost husky voice with lyrics in his native tongue.
Whilst Vieux’s easy flowing chat and laughters made for an easy and pleasant ride between songs, he also light heartedly brought up the issue of visas, and how increasingly difficult it is for Malian (and world wide) musicians to attain these days, thus threatening performances.
“In the old days, my father would say… Here you come with me, and he ring would up his friends say “me and my son need passports” and within ten minutes they come over with a passport and visas for me and my father *laughter*…. But now…It is so hard, this is a BIG ISSUE”.
Vieux also shared some personal stories about how he started to become a musician. Telling of how originally his father didn’t like the idea due to the struggles he had faced, however later agreed and enrolled him in music school. It was here that originally Vieux started to learn the calabash before moving onto kora, then guitar. He told us how his grandfather had always encouraged him musically and had once brought him “a very big hat… and a very big calabash”. At this moment I look at the navy blue porkpie hat sat cool-y on the neck of his Fender electric guitar and I wonder if this hat was similar to the one his grandfather gave him.
Vieux played and smiled and laughed with the audience for over two hours. Nothing but a man, his voice and the unbelievable guitar playing of the ‘Farka Tourés. As the last song started Vieux decided that everyone could stand up for the final tune in order to dance together, happily the audience obliged.
I thoroughly loved the concert, for me it felt like a vey special evening. An opportunity to see live an original performance that might never be replicated, and musically and historically, such an important and imperative figure in the changing face of African music. Such innovative and noticeable guitar playing that his father pioneered, to see Vieux Farka Touré play his repertoire so soulfully was an honour. Furthermore the venue: Nells Jazz & Blues is a wonderful venue to host such superior and important music.