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Timbuktu, the birthplace of blues

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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.


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