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Sidi Touré Interviewed: Hatred & War Have No Place Here
David McKenna , November 12th, 2012 15:40

Our man David 'Rockfort' McKenna speaks to Sid Touré about turmoil in Mali and hopes for the future, voodoo, trance and the griot tradition

If you've read anything recently about music in Mali, or Mali in general, it has probably been related to the takeover of northern Mali, including the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Gao, by Islamic militants and these groups' war on music. It's not exactly an issue you can skirt around, particularly when interviewing a guitarist, singer and songwriter - Sidi Touré – who, though he's now based in Bamako, was born and grew up in Gao, a place where militiamen have been making bonfires of musical instruments.

"Currently the people who are in the north of Mali, they think that music is Satan," confirms Sidi Touré. "In Gao, they've burned the instruments of the Gao regional orchestra. It's crazy, they've entered buildings, seized instruments, taken them outside and set fire to them. But I think music is something that brings people together, because in a world without music people will eat each other alive!

"In Mali, in Bamako, in Dar Salam, it's been weeks since we heard about amputations, in the previous weeks that was all we heard about. It seems things might be calming down momentarily. But when you see weapons circulating in markets, in houses, in the side-streets... we're not used to that, weapons are for waging war, they're for military camps, not for town centres. It's a big problem. My family and friends are getting by well, we talk on the phone, they come to Bamako, they can still travel but in Gao they're not free."

The role of mouthpiece for the Sahel region is not one that Touré has shied away from – he's also worked with Oxfam to raise awareness of the food crisis there – but I still wonder how much of burden it is having to act as a spokesperson to foreign journalists.

"When you're asked to be spokesman for your country it is a burden, of course, because you have to also talk about your country in all its splendour as well as everything else that's happening but I do it willingly. The message I have to give to people is to believe in yourselves, to take hold of their courage with both hands. Where there's sadness there is happiness and where there is happiness there is sadness. Everything that's happening is ephemeral, it will pass and Mali will be unified and peace will triumph because hatred and war have no place here. We'll leave that in the past, the only war that matters is the war against underdevelopment."

One great irony of this clampdown on musical expression by Islamic militants that I haven't seen commented on much is the fact that Mali's music bears the indelible imprint of the old Muslim empires – the Mali Empire and the Mande Songhay Empire. The country's music is often gentler, more melodic than that of the Congo, to take one example.

"You're right! You hear the pentatonic scale with the Sudanese, in the north of Mali, in the Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia - it's totally normal to hear the influence of Islam and the Arab world. When I hear music from those places, I can sing along with it, it immediately reminds me of tunes from my home, I can play along without thinking about it. It would be a lot harder with music from the Congo. Music from Mali is renowned for its melodies and it is highly diverse. I am Malian, Habib Koïté, Oumou Sangaré, Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam and Rokia Traoré are all Malian, but my music and Rokia's aren't the same. That's Mali's strength, it's cultural diversity."

Touré's interest in the history of the Sahel isn't accidental – he was born into a noble family that traces its line back to the kings of the Songhay (or Songhaï) empire. As his biography has it, "Touré's family had been sung about, and sung to, by traditional griots (singers, poets or storytellers) for centuries" and it's generally well-known that his family struggled with the idea of one of their own taking on just such a griot role - Touré's older brother would even break his sibling's home-made guitars. Touré persevered and became the youngest ever member of the Songhaï Stars, Gao's regional orchestra but sang in Bambara until he had a breakthrough with a song, 'Manou Tchirey', written in the Songhaï language. Does he feel a responsibility towards Songhai rhythms and styles, to keeping them alive?

"Yes, I feel a responsibility towards this culture given everything that's happened recently. I have a lot to say, I have many messages to get across, so today I am one of the ambassadors of this culture and if God grants me a long life I still have a lot to say not only in Mali or in Africa but also in the rest of the world. But I'm not alone – there's Baba Salah, an old pupil, and there's Oumar Konaté, who played on Koïma (Touré's last album) and who has his own group now. There's also MC Talka who is a rapper in Sweden, there are lots of young people who play Songhaï music."

Globally, though, Touré is undoubtedly becoming one of the foremost exponents of Songhaï styles.

He's toured Touréthe US and is playing his first ever UK shows this month, including a Quietus-sponsored event at Cafe Oto.

"I dreamed about England and the United States. I've already been to the US and now I'm coming to England. It's a really important county for music and I'm really very happy to be coming to play. I know Pink Floyd and The Beatles, the 'Fab Four'. Those were albums I had, I'd love to actually meet them"

It's partly happened through his unlikely place on the roster of US indie Thrill Jockey, better known for American post-rock-y acts like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake.  ("Maybe they will give up on me but I will never give up on them because they've done a lot for me. You know, being a musician isn't about earning thousands, millions, it's something else. The love that this label and its manager has for me, that's something. They've made real sacrifices to put me out there and that means a lot, I've been really touched.") On the surface there might be little to connect Touré with the stentorian synth-rock with vocoders of, say, Trans Am circa Red Line but there's at least one aspect of Sidi's music that transcends divides and sidesteps Orientalism to appeal directly to the 'alternative' nation. In this case, it's not roughness/rawness (although it's not for nothing Touré is sometimes referred to as a Songhaï 'bluesman', just have a listen to 'Tondi Karaa') - even the very simply recorded album of duets, Sahel Folk, the first on Thrill Jockey, sounds remarkably polished and the follow-up, Koïma, is even more pristine – but the music's trance-like quality, created through the careful use of repetition and the fact that, rhythmically, the songs never seem to settle.

"Traditionally in Gao when we talk about trances we talk about the music of possession that we call Holley or vaudou. When you play the music of Dongo, the master of lightning, or the music of Marou Tchireye, the king of the brush-land, or the music of Waitiladio, the goddess of the waters, if someone is possessed by one of them, those people get up, dance and vocalise. When this music is played traditionally, it's with two or four violins and lots of calabashes (gourds) hit with brushes, a bit like those used in waltzes or in jazz. Now when we play this music in a modern way there are two guitars, a calabash and a traditional instrument: the violin or the n'goni (the 'hunter's harp' that is at the forefront of Donso's sound) and even with those it can put people into a trance. It's down to the melody and the rhythm. I've noticed during our tours in Europe and America that, when we're playing, there's no mention of possession but people immediately start dancing, even though they don't really understand what we're playing or singing. That's a form of trance as well."

The live experience is what  Touré looks for, even on record.

"I like recording live because everyone's there, you listen to each other, there's no editing or mending. It's comfortable playing live, everyone's there, I'm face to face with you, I see what you're doing, I hear what you're doing immediately, you're alive, it's warm." Sahel Folk was all about that warmth, with guests joining Sidi for tea while they worked out which song they would record together the next day. Koïma is more sinuous, full-band outing that reaches a peak on the 8-minute 'Ishi Tanhama' and closes with one of his loveliest melodies, 'Euzo'. Even though I don't understand a word of the lyrics, the latter evinces a strong nostalgic pull. Indeed, nostalgia seems to be a key theme for Touré and, given that it's literally defined as the suffering evoked by the desire to return to one's origin or home, it's hard to imagine an emotion more apt to his situation. Someone who's strongly nostalgic is also clearly not particularly satisfied with the present, I suggest.

"When I'm feeling nostalgic it's a total inspiration. If I can allow myself to think of the past, I think of when I was in Niger and I had the idea of writing the song 'Gao', or when I arrived in Bamako and from the hill of Koulouba, I could see the lights of Bamako, it was the beginning of democracy and I wrote the song 'Bamako'. Nostalgia gives me the impetus to write, to express what I have in my heart, in my guts."

And yet, the nostalgic impulse doesn't seem to entail simply retreating into memory, or to preclude looking forward.

"I think on my next album I'll still be critical," Touré says. "I'll be talking about climate change, the Niger river filling up with sand, street drugs... Songhaï folklore remains my source of inspiration -  the music of possession, takamba. Anything is possible, I don't know – in fact I've written so many songs that I don't really know which ones to record!"

Sidi Touré plays London Cafe Oto for Eat Your Own Ears this Wednesday, November 14th