Backstage before the concert, there are three men in the room, and I’m not entirely sure which one is Vieux Farka Touré. Perhaps it’s the man holding the kora, or the guy wearing dazzlingly bright native clothing. I assume it’s not the man wearing an unprepossessing light-blue business shirt, gesturing for me to sit down. I assume wrong, and am about to address the man with the kora as ‘Vieux’ when Vieux himself asks me to take a seat. We have five minutes to conduct an interview; not enough time. He tells me he’d be happy to talk to me after the concert, I agree, and I leave to take my seat in the stalls of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Two hours later, I find out that Vieux knows how to treat journalists well. Within 200 seconds of the encore having finished, I’m in Vieux’s dressing room, my thin brown hand lost in his strong dark one as he shakes my hand firmly. I’ve been told his English isn’t very strong, but I can’t verify this, as we conduct our entire conversation in French. “Formidable!” I say, enthusiastically. “Trop la classe! On peut parler en français si vous voulez…”
Vieux’s real first name is Boureima. I ask him why he calls himself ‘Vieux’ (which means ‘old’ or ‘old man’) when he is – shockingly! – younger than his father, the late legend Ali Farka Touré, whose musical tradition was described by Martin Scorsese as “the DNA of the blues”. He replies that he was named after his grandfather, Boureima; in Malian culture, it is common to be nicknamed ‘Vieux’ if you’re named after one of your elders. He was called ‘Vieux’ as a child; the name stuck. I ask if he has kids himself. “Yes! I have two kids,” he burbles. His eyebrows flicker excitedly, and he whips out his phone to show me Ali (after Vieux’s father; paradoxically, Vieux nicknames his son ‘Papa’) and Hawa. “Mignons!” I exclaim truthfully.
Ali – that is, Vieux’s father, not his son – was often compared to John Lee Hooker, the Mississippi bluesman who specialised in country blues and the talking blues. I ask if there’s anyone with whom Vieux has been repeatedly compared musically. He answers: Hendrix. “They call me ‘the Hendrix of the Sahara’! I’ll take that. It’s an honour for me.” The comparison is apt – Vieux is less ostentatious a player, and won’t revolutionise guitar-playing, but when watching him play, one gets the sense that he was born to wield the axe. Like Hendrix’s, his fluidity is startling, and his effortlessness makes his incredible melodic runs look a cakewalk.
Whom did Vieux listen to as a child? “B.B. King, John Lee Hooker… the great bluesmen… Generally, the music my dad listened to. We would listen to music together. Also… the oldies, like Phil Collins, people like that.” I’m not sure whether or not he’s joking about that last bit, although some of Vieux’s playing is not unlike some of Steve Hackett’s early ‘70s work with Genesis. “I was born into music like that.” No African blues? I ask. “Yes, I did listen to a bit of African music back then. Traditional African music… The ‘Tacamba’, for instance – traditional music from Northern Mali.”
Northern Mali has been in socio-political turmoil for well over a year now, since the Islamist-backed military coup in March 2012. Vieux has pretty much been touring solidly since then, and although he hasn’t spent as much time as he would have liked to back home, he’s kept in touch with friends and family. He said in a recent press release, “After the coup, nearly my entire family, who normally lives in Niafunké, moved down to Bamako [the capital of Mali]. Only my eldest brother Billa stayed. I hires two guards for our house in Bamako, because there were times when bandits would take advantages of the disorder by looting… We were already a poor country, and now there really is nothing left. We must build everything again from nothing.” His reaction to the conflict can be heard on his most recent album, Mon Pays, a quiet, reflective, melancholy but ultimately optimistic album from a man who has been fortunate enough to not be living in an environment of constant conflict.
I ask if there’s anyone in today’s music scene that, in his opinion, really stands out. He’s unable to name many specific artists, even when I ask him for examples: “There’s a lot of great music out there. Many great musicians, in the cities here, in Mali, and in other countries. I listen to a lot of current music… like, for example, I recently went to the Congo with [Congolese singer-songwriter] Fally Ipupa. He’s a champion there.”
Vieux’s preferred make of guitar is the Canadian brand, Godin. Famous players of Godin guitars include Leonard Cohen, John McLaughlin, Brian May and Habib Koité. Acoustic or electric? I ask. He responds somewhat predictably: “Acoustic, electric, I don’t really mind.” On stage, he’s certainly pretty impressive with an electric guitar; he seems somewhat more at home with those beautiful, fluid runs, wreaking strange and wonderful effects that can’t quite be achieved on a humble acoustic.
His father tried to prevent him from entering the music industry; shortly before he died in 2006, he gave his blessing. Ali’s reluctance hadn’t really stopped the tenacious young Vieux, however, who had continued to practise in secret. I ask him if there’s anything he dislikes about the music industry. He replies, vaguely: “Music is a lottery. If it all goes well, très bien. If it doesn’t… well, there’s never a guarantee. It’s pretty tough. You start playing music early, and it might develop into a career… but any guarantee is distinctly absent, from the first day you pick up an instrument.” Hardly insider knowledge, then, but he seems unable or unwilling to deliver much more criticism.
I ask if there’s anyone with whom he’d particularly like to work in the future. Again, he’s evasive, even when pressed for examples: “There are plenty. Plenty of musicians! I can’t give examples, but there’s a great deal of great musicians.” Like the late Joe Strummer, he believes the future is unwritten, although in later email correspondence he offers up cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Jay-Z, and Adele as dream musical partners.
Time for the random question, I think to myself. “So… what kind of food do you like? What’s your favourite cuisine?” He replies, without a beat – “Indian food.” He seems surprised to learn that I’m from India. “Indian food’s great. I have it all the time. I particularly like that dish… the rice-based one…” He’s prompted by Nick Gold, owner of influential record label World Circuit, who’d quietly popped in sometime during the interview: “Biryani?” “Oui! Biryani!” Vieux says excitedly. “I’ve been to India, just to eat that food. I’ve been to Bombay, New Delhi, lots of other places there. I really love India.” I tell him that my mother would gladly cook biryani for him if he were to come and visit. He grins shyly.
There’s a knock on the door, and I sense our all-too-brief interview – which wasn’t the easiest of interviews, since I haven’t had to speak in fluent French for years – is drawing to a close. “You OK to sign some CDs?” asks Charlie Richards, Vieux’s tall, amiable booking agent, tilting his head. “No! What? Who?” replies Vieux in English, mock-scandalised. We laugh, and Vieux bounds up from the seat to see his fans. He is apparently unaffected by the ninety minutes of fairly intense music he just played. As he gets set for leaving, he exclaims half-jokingly: “You know, I have my CDs, in my hotel room! And – if I don’t sell my CDs here, I don’t get any money for this!” “No!” replies a placatory chorus – a two-man chorus of Richards and Nick. “You get money! You get money eventually! Eventually you get money. You wanna come and sign for the money later?” “No,” replies Vieux. “I want to come and sign for the fans. Pour mes fans.”
I look forward to listening to his new record.
The quotes in this article have been translated as faithfully as possible