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Timbuktu, the birthplace of blues

Don't argue with an African about the birthplace of blues. It's Timbuktu. Hear why.

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When Americans hear Toure – or his late father – play, they often remark on how much it sounds like the American blues, especially the rough, unforgiving, electric blues of Chicago or the thumping finger-picking style of Mississippi. The American blues guitarist Ry Cooder found so much in common with the music of Ali Farka Toure that he produced a duet album with him called “Talking Timbuktu.”

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But when Toure hears American blues, he hears something different.

“When I hear American blues, I hear the Gambali music of the Fulani people, I hear the Takamba music of the Songhay people, and I hear the Jeru music of the Tuareg people,” says Toure, whose own ethnic ties are to the northern Malian region of Niafunke. “You have the same three styles we have here, mixed together. It’s as if I was playing it myself.”

He plays a few bars on an acoustic guitar, demonstrating an American-blues-style tune, and then switching to a more traditional Malian approach to the guitar. The similarities, especially the five-note or pentatonic scale he uses for solos and riffs, far outweigh any differences.


Some musicologists have argued that it’s impossible to trace music styles with any specificity, because modern African musicians are as influenced by American pop music as they are by their own rich traditions. Just as many African-Americans – pardon me, Africans living in America – have been cut off, forcibly, from their historic ties to specific communities in Africa. So, too, has the music altered in America, mixing and changing, like a good story that improves with each telling.

But that’s the problem with academics. They think too much.

Close your eyes, and listen to Wanty Ag Mohamed al Mouloud, a Tuareg griot (a musical historian and storyteller) play a few bars of a song, about the difficulties of a caravan crossing the Sahara, of the heroic battles of Tuareg fighters against French colonials, and you’ll wonder if Robert Johnson may have sold his soul to the devil in vain.

The song goes on for some 50 minutes, and Mr. Mouloud sways from left to right, as if in a trance, his eyes closed, occasionally grunting to the rhythm like a Saharan James Brown. Nearby, a few Tuareg listeners shout encouragement, laugh, and even dance.

“I have no doubt that the blues came from the Sahara, because the desert has many sounds, much music, and this is what we play,” says Mouloud, stroking the strings of his kitara, a slender but surprisingly heavy three-stringed instrument with a goat-skin cover over the body. “I am sure that if I heard Western musicians playing blues right now, it would sound the same.”

And with that he takes a much-needed sip of hot, sugary mint tea.

VIDEO: Watch guitarists Vieux Farka Toure and Wanty Ag Mohamed play the blues.

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