Timbuktu, the birthplace of blues

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

Dave Martin/AP/File
The real blues brother: Mali's top guitarist Vieux Farka Toure performs in Tennessee. On the birthplace of blues, he says 'My father used to tell me all the time that the blues is not from America, it’s from Africa,' he says.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Ask an American where the blues come from, and he might answer Chicago; or Memphis, Tenn.; or the Mississippi Delta.

Ask an African, and he’ll look at you as if you’re stupid. The blues came from Timbuktu, where the sands of the Sahara met the banks of the mighty Niger River, and reached a compromise. Here, Arab and Tuareg caravans came from the desert bearing slabs of precious salt and bartered with African traders offering pots of gold (and often slaves) in return. The culture that came out of this meeting place produced a rhythmic and mournful music that you can still hear in the songs of the Tuareg, Fulani, and Songhay communities here.

It’s advisable not to argue with the folks in Timbuktu about this point, unless you’re in a dangerous mood.

“My father used to tell me all the time that the blues is not from America, it’s from Africa,” says Vieux Farka Toure, Mali’s top guitarist, and son of the late guitarist Ali Farka Toure. “Who plays the blues? African-Americans do. In fact, I don’t even like to think of them as African-Americans. They are Africans living in the United States.”

VIDEO: Guitarist Vieux Farka Toure discusses his music with Monitor staff writer Scott Baldauf.

The words may sound pugnacious or boastful, but Mr. Toure delivers them with a gentle, matter-of-fact smile, as if explaining to a child that milk comes from a cow or that apples grow on trees. And while academics may question whether the blues were born here in the sands of the Sahara – or perhaps down in the swamps of Nigeria, Angola, or Mozambique – it is without question that the blues came from Africa, in the hearts of the 20 million slaves who were brought to the New World.

'Talking Timbuktu'

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.”

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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