Born in 1939 in Kanau, Mali, Africa; married; children: eleven. Addresses: Record companies--Nonesuch Records, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10104, website:; World Circuit Records, 138 Kingsland Rd., London, England E2 8DY 020 7749 3222, website:

Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure has often been referred to as a missing link between the blues and traditional music of West Africa. Toure, who dismisses any reference to his music as "blues," has always maintained that the traditional music of his native Sonrai people was brought to the United States by slaves, and that this ancient music is the source of American blues. Toure has described in numerous interviews how he listened to the work of such American blues artists as John Lee Hooker, and upon hearing these recordings he was struck, not by any influence of the music itself, but by the similarities of these modern American songs to the traditional music of his people. He told London's Evening Standard that he "recognized it as African music, as the music from my region."

Toure is actually a farmer by profession, and considers his music secondary. While blues may be a solid foundation for Toure, he has forged a style all his own. Reviewing his album, The Source, Sing Out! stated that "his right-hand patterns would drive even the most accomplished bluesman screaming into the night and he seems less interested in singing about rambling, gambling, and fooling around than in chronicling the construction of a new irrigation system for the village of Dofana (a project that took him off the road and out of the studio for more than a year)."

Providential Beginning

Toure, the tenth son and only surviving child of his parents, was born in the village of Kanau in Mali's northwest region. When Toure was still a child, his father died while serving in the French army, so Toure and his mother moved to Niafunké, a small village in a remote region of Northern Mali near Timbuktu. At 12 years old Toure made his first instrument, a single-string djerkel that is a gourd covered with cowhide and fitted with a neck and rattles. This instrument, which is Toure's favorite, has ritual functions. He told Guitar Player that "the sky opens up, and knowledge and power descend on the player." Toure later taught himself the njarka, a single-string violin, and began playing the guitar in 1956 after seeing Guinean guitarist Keita Fodeba. By the time Toure was in his early twenties he had traveled widely throughout his country and had mastered numerous Malian languages, including Sonrai, Peul, Bozo, Bambara, Dogon, Songoy, Zarma, and Tamascheq. Toure primarily sings in Sonrai, the language of Niafunké, and in Peul, the language used by the nomadic Fulani people of West Africa.

Understanding Toure's music requires an understanding of the differences between his African culture and the culture from which American and European musicians emerge. In some African regions, musical training is passed down from generation to generation among the griots. In his book Looking Up At Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture, author Bill Barlow defined griots as "talented musicians and folklorists designated to be the oral carriers of their people's culture ... Griots preserved the history, traditions, and mores of their respective tribes and kinship groups through songs and stories." However, Toure is not a griot. He told Guitar Player, "My family weren't griots, so I never got any training. This is a gift I have; God doesn't give everybody the ability to play an instrument. Music is a spiritual thing---the force of sound comes from the spirit."

Ambassador of Sound

In 1968 Toure was selected by the government to represent Mali at an international arts festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, marking his first appearance outside Africa. In the early 1970s he moved to Mali's capital, Bamako, where he worked as a sound engineer for National Radio Mali and recorded numerous broadcasts on Radio Mali. During this time, Toure sent these recorded broadcasts to the Paris-based record label Son Afric, and the songs appeared on a total of seven albums released between 1975 and 1988. Unfortunately, Toure received little payment for these recordings. Songs from the first five of these early recordings were reissued on the World Circuit label in Europe in 1996, and on the Nonesuch label in the United States in 1999, on the compilation CD Radio Mali. The last two albums from this early period, released in 1984 and 1988 respectively, were digitally remastered and reissued in 2005 on the two-disc set Red & Green. Radio Mali and Red & Green represent important recordings of Toure's acoustic traditional music, and are historically significant examples of some of the earliest recordings of the traditional calabash (gourd instrument) and ngoni (four-string lute).

Toure performed in public in the late 1970s, when he backed American blues legend John Lee Hooker on a tour of France. A Village Voice article illustrated the difference between the two guitarists' music: "[Toure] doesn't crank out one-chord boogies like his idol. It's as if he merely hints at the possibility before meandering off in other directions." By the early 1980s Toure had grown tired of the commercial aspect of the music industry, and he essentially stopped touring and recording, until Ann Hunt of World Circuit sought Toure out in Mali in the mid-1980s. He released his self-titled American debut in 1988, and expanded his touring circuit beyond Africa and Europe to include the United States, Canada, and Japan.

Toure recorded The River with the Chieftains in 1990. With his 1992 album The Source, he began to gain commercial and artistic recognition. The album topped the Billboard World Music chart for eleven weeks, helped in part by guest appearances from American bluesman Taj Mahal and guitarist Ry Cooder. In a Billboard profile, Toure's producer Nick Gold spoke of the logistics involved in recording him. Toure does not have a telephone, so Gold sends faxes to Mali's capital, Bamako, which are helicoptered to Toure's village. As far as enlisting other musicians, Gold said it was difficult "because the musicians live in various parts of the north of Mali, and travel is not easy. You have to send a messenger out and hope that people will show up."

Bringing the Ends of the Earth to a Worldwide Audience

During a brief American tour in 1994 with Ry Cooder, the rapport between the two guitarists was such that they completed an album together in four days. The result, Talking Timbuktu, was the 1994 winner of the Down Beat Critics' Poll "Beyond Album of the Year," and it won a Grammy for Best World Music Album. The album debuted in the number one spot on Billboard's World Music Chart, and topped the chart for a record 32-week span. Sing Out! praised Cooder's production on the album: "As a producer, Cooder makes few of the mistakes common to this type of venture. He does not try to alter Toure's playing in any way, but takes the songs and builds arrangements around them. And his guitar playing does not intrude."

Ry Cooder described the making of Talking Timbuktu to Guitar Player: "You'd think Ali's just goofing and jamming, but they're all tunes, because these musicians don't jam. Americans do, but Africans don't. They don't just blow; they play a song. And he says his melodies are ancient melodies and they have a purpose." A typical track from Talking Timbuktu is "Gomni," a song about an individual's place in the community. Toure described it in the liner notes as, "You have to work hard to achieve a sense of well being. You should dedicate your life to the work which brings you happiness. When the community needs you, you should not turn a blind eye. Every job has its worth and everyone should make their contribution."

Following the success of Talking Timbuktu, Toure retreated to his farm in Niafunké and did not tour or record again until 1999, when Gold journeyed to the musician's remote village to draw out another recording from Toure, who was determined not to leave his home and the source of his music. Gold transported a mobile studio to the village, where they set up in an abandoned school building with local musicians and singers. Placing a higher significance on his farming than on the recording, Toure would work his fields during the day, and recording would only start after he had completed his chores. The Grammy-nominated album, Niafunké, came out in 1999 to appreciative fans and critics. Toure explained in the liner notes, "This record is more real, more authentic. It was recorded in the place where the music belongs---deep Mali. We were in the middle of the landscape which inspired the music and that in turn inspired myself and the musicians." Noting the "distinct African sound" of this follow-up to Talking Timbuktu, Boston Globe critic Christopher Muther remarked that Niafunké shows that "Farka Toure also has an opportunity to play acoustically and experiment with less blues-oriented styles. There's also an Islamic influence running through songs, such as the hypnotic 'Ali's Here.'" CMJ reviewer Steve Ciabattoni stated, "[Toure's] sparkling, acoustic picking and trademark loping, electric riffs are aging nicely and taking on a more profound, more essential air."

Toure toured, if reluctantly, to promote Niafunké, and while he conceded that performing is "in my blood, in my mind, and in my heart," he still placed music second after his love for the land. It wasn't until 2005 that Toure agreed to record again. This time, World Circuit head Gold flew Toure to Bamako to record in a studio on the top floor of the Mande Hotel. Recording with Toure only began after he arrived fresh from his inauguration as mayor of Niafunké. Gold produced three albums here: a duet of Toure and acclaimed kora player Toumani Diabate, a solo album by Toure, and a third of Diabate with his percussive band Symmetric Orchestra. The duet album, In the Heart of the Moon, brings together two different traditions in Malian music. Toure plays rural desert blues and comes from the Sonrai tradition of Northern Mali, while Diabate, a griot, is influenced by the Mande tradition of Southern Mali that dates back to the thirteenth century. The two artists found common ground by recording music from the 1950s and 1960s that developed during Mali's struggle for independence from France. Recorded in just six hours, In the Heart of the Moon is, according to an Irish Times correspondent, "stunning by virtue of its relative simplicity and subtlety," and the album was deemed by All Music Guide's Thom Jurek as "nothing short of remarkable."

Toure may not record and tour as often as his fans would hope; nevertheless, his output continues to be worth the wait. Described as mysterious, sometimes cranky, yet always engaging, Toure has said, "For some people, when you say 'Timbuktu,' it is like the end of the world, but that is not true. I am from Timbuktu, and I can tell you we are right at the heart of the world."

by James Powers and Elizabeth Henry

Ali Farka Toure's Career

Worked as mechanic, taxi driver, and river ambulance pilot; began playing the djerkel (single string guitar) and njarka (single string violin) as a child, c. 1940s; began playing the guitar, 1956; played with John Lee Hooker in Paris, c. 1970s; worked as sound engineer for Radio Mali in Mali's capital Bamako, c. 1970s; released albums on French Son Afric label, 1975-88; released first U.S. album, Ali Farka Toure, 1988; toured and collaborated with Ry Cooder, released Talking Timbuktu, 1994; released compilation disc Radio Mali (1996), which included selections of his 1970-78 work for Radio Mali; released Niafunké, 1999; released two-disc CD Red & Green (2005), a retrospective of his early recordings originally released on Son Afric in 1984 and 1988; released In the Heart of the Moon with Malian kora (African harp) virtuoso Toumani Diabate, 2005.

Ali Farka Toure's Awards

Grammy Award, Best World Music Album, for Talking Timbuktu, 1994; Down Beat Critics' Poll, Beyond Album of the Year, for Talking Timbuktu, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

March 7, 2006: Toure died on March 7, 2006, in Bamako, Mali. Source:,, March 21, 2006.

Further Reading



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