For the last year or so, I have become increasingly drawn to African blues and pop. The big stars in Africa, such as Franco and Fela Kuti, long enjoyed a perfect blend of artistic freedom and popular success that disappeared from the mainstream West in the ‘80s. And when I say freedom, I mean freedom: Fela ‘The One Who Carries Death In His Pouch’ Kuti – Nigeria’s answer to Dylan, the Clash, the Stones and Miles Davis all rolled into one – rarely did songs shorter than 12 minutes. The one (brilliant) Fela best-of I possess is well over 150 minutes long, and contains 13 songs, half of which are truncated versions.
The support act has already begun; they are led by larger-than-life kora player Diabel Cissokho, who already has several fans in the audience. He’s backed by two guitarists (Abdoulaye Samb and Farid Nainia), a bassist (Assane Ba) and a drummer (Omar Massar Diagne), who also plays the calabash – a large, booming percussion instrument fashioned from the fruit of the calabash vine. The kora, a bulbous stringed instrument about the size of a double-bass, sounds like an impoverished mandolin: its notes are thin and plaintive. I first heard it played by Toumani Diabaté, one of the world’s greatest kora players, on Taj Mahal’s stunning ‘Queen Bee’, from the 1999 Kulanjan album. Cissokho doesn’t display quite as much majestic mastery as Diabaté, but that’s like saying Torres is no Pelé. The guitars are competent; the rhythm section, in its power and pacing, surprisingly reminds me of Led Zep circa Houses of the Holy.
An excellent group, they end on a high. We clap; they leave. Interval. Then Monsieur Vieux Farka Touré strolls onstage to a groundswell of applause, having traded in his business shirt for native dress that is a hue of pale rose. He is a big, solid man, his physiognomy recalling Taj Mahal as well as his own father, the deceased guitar maestro Ali Farka Touré.
Vieux is obviously popular; much of the audience, hardly cultish, seems familiar with his material, and shout-outs throughout the show range from song requests to – from one particularly invidious woman – “Tell us a story!” Sadly, her request fails to reach the target’s ears, because the target drops some of his equipment as the words leave her mouth. Vieux’s on-stage charisma is, perhaps, inhibited by his thick accent and not-quite-fluent English; he often mumbles into the mic, gesticulating suggestively and raising his eyebrows as if to communicate some deeply calming yogic message. But when he steps back and plugs in, he has the instant respect and attention of everyone in the room.
His first two songs are impressive, especially if you’ve never heard him before; he kicks off with ‘Touri’ and ‘Fafa’, soulful songs from 2011’s The Secret and 2009’s Fondo respectively. Vieux has been dubbed ‘the Hendrix of the Sahara’, but I’d suspected this was PR pigeonholing until now. He recalls many different guitarists: Hendrix in his range and feel, the Afro-pop guitar greats of the ‘80s in his fluidity, Santana in his rapid-fire blasts, McLaughlin in his shredding, and even Alvin Lee in some of his more fitful rave-ups. But it’s the ‘Sahara’ part of his appointed epithet that intrigues me: the music is as dry as a desert. His playing is very dry – more B.B. King than Hendrix – but what really gives the music its desiccated feel are the drums and bass. The bassist, Valery Assouan, is arrayed in colourful, cubist green triangles, but most of the colour he brings to the show is in his sartorial rather than his musical display. Jean-Baptiste Gbadoe drums away, workmanlike, and only really comes into his own during the rave-ups.
For all my comparisons and analogues, Touré has his own fantastic style. While Hendrix’s notes are ‘fat’, like Coltrane’s ‘sheets’, Touré’s are thin: sometimes staccato like platinum pinpricks, sometimes incredibly fluid, as if each note were an ethereal carriage, forming some supernal train. At points, his fingers – which manage to fly over and caress his instrument simultaneously – stop abruptly. His index or middle finger picks impetuously, once, releasing a high-pitched bullet that curves and bends and hits the audience hard. I’d say he was a guitar magician, but his command of his instrument is so much more impressive than magic. The audience seems to agree.
The audience is largely white, middle-aged, and seemingly middle-class. Their preliminarily uncertain attempts to ‘connect’ with the music begin to give way to a more genuine, spirited participation. Soon enough, great fun is being had by everyone in the room, except for an Evening Standard reviewer who sits inexplicably sulking at the end of the row, peering down his nose at the action from which he seems so wilfully detached. The probing purple lights pick out the occasional audience member, whose awkward dancing position while transfixed in the transient violet beam make him (invariably a him) resemble a particularly ungainly flamingo.
Touré’s set sags a little just after the midpoint. The musical variety is somewhat lacking; it’s either quiet guitar meditations, backed by appropriately modest drumming, or all-out extended explosions accompanied by a rhythm section that steamrolls the audience. Both modes are intense, but this particular brand of ‘desert blues’ lacks the colour and expansive quality of a larger outfit, such as the Derek Trucks Band. If this were recorded, it probably wouldn’t be as good as his only live album to date: the wonderful Live (2010). Still, we’re being treated to concentrated, beautifully distilled bursts of intermittent brilliance. No-one complains. “Merci”, shouts one enthusiastic attendee in front of me. At 9:30, the band launches into the lengthy, Gbadoe-dominated ‘Na Maimouna Poussaniamba’: the greatest, most rhythmically propulsive gig-closer I’ve seen since Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney rocked Hyde Park in 2012 with ‘Twist and Shout’.
Vieux’s latest album, Mon Pays, was released a few months ago. His pays is Mali, which is riven by sectarian conflict between Tuareg and Islamic rebels, despite being regarded a decade ago as one of Africa’s most stable nations. According to a Guardian article from October last year, there are about 200,000 slaves in Mali; some leading extremist Islamists are attempting to ban music. It’s a fact that bears repetition – if they are successful (an unlikely scenario), music will be outlawed. This is a source of great chagrin to Vieux Farka Touré, a proud Muslim with a troubled family back in Bamako. Vieux’s latest album – tranquil, spiritual, haunting – deals obliquely with this situation by celebrating the traditional songs and customs of his native country.
In the Queen Elizabeth Hall, however, you’d never know that violence, slavery and terror were taking place in Mali. Vieux doesn’t mention it all; he remains in high spirits throughout, and only mentions Mali once: to dedicate a song to his country. Only four songs from his setlist are taken from Mon Pays, and most of the songs that aren’t part of his short acoustic interlude – which features Diabel Cissokho on kora – are energetic party songs. Perhaps Vieux’s tour, which he has been on since the Northern Malian coup of March 2012, is a form of therapy for him. The studio album is political; he’s said what he wanted to say. Perhaps now, he just wants to dance and make music. He’s certainly earned it.