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Vieux Farka Touré: The Man Behind The Music

The Malian guitarist on making music and what he does during his time off from touring

Lalitha Suhasini Dec 10, 2014
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Vieux Farka Toure | Photo: Blackberrys Sharp Nights

Vieux Farka Touré | Photo: Blackberrys Sharp Nights

Thirty-three-year-old Vieux Farka Touré wears his status as an exemplary musician lightly. “My father was very simple. He was a farmer. He always told me to lead a simple life,” says Vieux, the son of the late African music legend, Ali Farka Touré. In fact, Touré initially disapproved of Vieux’s passion for music and hoped he would earn a regular income if he enrolled in the army instead. Vieux, one of 12 children, recalls how his father impressed upon him early on that being a musician, however famous, did not make him any different from the man on the street. “We have a very big farm,” says Vieux, “I go to the farm. I drive tractors. I worked.”

Vieux casually adds that he also owns a peanut butter factory back home. He says, “I have some business”¦ like peanut butter factory. Original and organic. I work there.” He shows us photos of his company, Cuisine D’Afrique, on his Samsung Note 4 for proof ”“ of him packing peanut butter and visits to his factory. An unlikely profession for a musician, but the reason why he set up the company is simple he says. “We used to get terrible peanut butter here. It had preservatives and made us sick. The factory is also for my wife.”  Vieux struggles through a severe bout of jetlag ”“ he recently wrapped up a month-long US tour and flew down to India soon after for Blackberrys Sharp Nights Masters Of World Music’s series of shows in Pune, Bengaluru and Mumbai ”“ but perks up when he shows us photos of his two children, a daughter and son, and his wife. “I have a big house. People come in and out all the time. This is what I love to do. I love to talk to people. I love people and music,” he says.

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Besides being rewarded with a brilliant musical legacy from his father, Vieux tells us that growing up in Mali shaped his music and how music is vital to his country. He says, “Mali is very special. It’s not like anywhere in Africa. Many don’t even read the newspaper or watch TV. Everybody has a telephone and they add music to it. And everything they do, they listen to music. So music is a great way to communicate. Many don’t go to school so we educate the people with music.” So when Islamic militants banned music in Mali in 2012, Vieux remembers that it was a dark, trying period for not just artists but for the entire country. “These people were not from Mali,” says Vieux, “They had guns, they had money. They killed some musicians. They wanted to cut off all communication by banning music. But we did everything to ignore the ban and persist.”

Music comes to Vieux on the go. He’s even written a brand new track during his tour in India. “We wrote it backstage before our show in Pune. So it’s called ”˜Pune’,” adds the guitarist, who has released five albums so far, including a live album. While his self-titled debut, released in 2006, established him as an ace musician, it was his second album Fondo, released in 2009, where he was seen forging his own identity and bringing rock into the traditional Malian sound. “I used to pick up cassettes to listen to other musicians. I put everything I knew on Fondo,” says Vieux, who has as much of a soft spot for pop music as he does for jazz and rock, naming Phil Collins and Bryan Adams as favorites in interviews. So it’s unsurprising that The Secret, his third album, released in 2011, included Dave Matthews, blues guitar hero Derek Trucks and jazz virtuoso guitarist John Scofield on it. “Sometimes, you play just to have fun,” says Vieux of the collaborations, “I also wanted to understand how jazz and blues, which have their roots in Africa, sounded like when I played with these musicians. When people say blues and jazz came from America, I tell them it came from Mali.”

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A collaboration with the Manganiyars from Rajasthan maybe in the works next, hints Vieux, who first performed in the country at the Amarrass Desert Music Festival in New Delhi in 2011, where he jammed with folk musicians from Rajasthan. “Rajasthani music is different. It’s something very special. I learnt so much from it. Even if I don’t understand it, I feel it,” says Vieux, who is working on a new album, which will include Brooklyn vocalist Julia Easterlin. “This is the first album to feature a female artist so that is the twist,” he adds.

The guitarist will have two months off the road once he wraps up his India tour and will be back home in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, to spend time with his family and manage the rest of his businesses. Eric Herman, founder of Modiba Productions, the company that manages Vieux’s work, tells us that Vieux is one of the most enterprising musicians he has ever met. “He also has car and boat rental companies,” says Herman. Watch his hands work the guitar on stage and you would never imagine Vieux as a businessman, but he laughs it off saying, “I just want something to do when I go back home.”

Vieux Farka Touré will perform at Blackberrys Sharp Nights Masters Of World Music in Mumbai on December 10th, 7 pm onwards at Tote. Entry by invitation only.

Listen to Vieux Farka Touré’s latest album Mon Pays here

Watch Vieux perform a cover of Ali Farka Touré’s “Ai Du” below

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