The last time Vieux Farka Touré performed in Montreal was at the FIJM four years ago. It was 2009 and Vieux had just released Fondo, his second studio album, to yet more critical acclaim. Like his father, the legendary Ali Farka Touré, Vieux was becoming a national hero in his native Mali and a star on the world music stage.
It was three years before territorial fighting between Tuareg and Islamist rebels would tear his country apart; three years before his father’s music, the pride of Niafunké – the town on the Niger River where Vieux was born and where the senior Touré was mayor in 2006 – would be banned by the Islamist militants who seized control of the town.
It is in that vein that Vieux recorded the album Mon pays, a tribute to his beloved, troubled homeland. And this is the Mali he wants to show us tonight: warm, inviting, rich in beauty. Before the first note had even filled the packed Club Soda, the mere presence of Vieux and his electro-acoustic guitarist, electric bassist and calabash player, all clad in boubous and shiny black leather shoes, had the audience entranced. Perhaps it was their quiet confidence, the soothing colour palette of cool blues and warm earth tones cast by their long tunics. There was a collective moment when everyone knew they would be in good hands for the next 90 minutes.
Vieux’s music, and the genre of Malian desert blues, has been called transcendental, and indeed you could see the spell being slowly cast on the diverse crowd. College-aged kids with backpacks bobbed their heads alongside grey-haired hippies. The people standing on the floor closed their eyes and swayed. The set started out slowly, melodically, and gradually built. After three or four songs, Vieux displayed the deft, lightning fingers that got him dubbed “The Jimi Hendrix of the Sahara,” displaying the kind of intricate guitar work that makes musicians drool.
The percussionist was fascinating to watch. He sat on the floor at the front corner of the stage with his calabash, the large gourd duct-taped down, and pounded it with either the palm of his hand, chopstick-thin drumsticks, or, a few times during the show, the heel of his shoe.
Vieux interacted with the audience warmly, asking “Ça va?” throughout the evening and declaring that he was always happy to be in Montreal. Toward the end of the show, he asked everyone on the upper levels to stand up and dance, jokingly cautioning those near the railing not to dance too hard. The crowd acquiesced, and soon the entire theatre was on its feet clapping and dancing.
At the end of the show, he humbly asked everyone to consider making a donation or buying his album, of which 10% of the profits went toward Malian children orphaned by the conflict. He greeted guests and posed for pictures, his wide smile suggesting he was genuinely happy to do so. The crowd filed out, still smiling and dreamy, having known they had just witnessed a living legend.
Vieux Farka Touré performed on July 3rd as part of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, which ran June 28 to July 6. For more information please consult the Festival website.