JULY 12, 2012

North Of The Border: Dispatches From The Montreal International Jazz Festival

Part 4: Sidi Touré

Last week Nat Geo Music sent correspondent Ron Deutsch to cover the 33rd edition of the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. This week he's filing his dispatches from the festival - a series of interviews with some of the international artists who graced the event's many stages. Today he checks in with Malian singer Sidi Touré.
Photo Credits: David Kaufman


It's difficult to argue that Sidi Touré's arrival in the West at this moment in time is not fortuitous in many ways. Fortuitous for Western audiences who finally get to hear and see one of the great performers of Mali who's remained unseen outside West Africa until now. But also fortuitous for the people of Mali, to have another voice raising awareness of the tragic events now occurring there. Touré said that in his country the role of a musician is to disseminate news. And that's what he's hoping to do during his current North America tour.

"We musicians are the people who educate the population," Touré said through an interpreter. "If something is going well, we talk about it. If something's going bad, we talk about it. We're important because we are the people who pass on information to the general public."

As he took the stage at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal that evening, even before he began to play, he told the attentive audience he was there to inform them of the terrible things happening back home.

"It's not a secret," he announced, "that for the past few months that the north of Mali has been taken hostage by Islamic extremists, and now it's in the third or fourth month of this hostage situation."

The current crisis in Mali began in March when the president was ousted in a coup d'état. Since then, Taureg separatists seized control of Northern Mali, and currently the Islamist Ansar Dine rebel group has imposed strict Sharia law over the people there, including the city Touré hails from, Gao.

A few weeks ago, extremists ravaged two United National World Heritage sites in Mali - Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia. And just the last week, Touré spoke to friends in Gao who told him "the extremists went to the regional Orchestra of Gao and took all of their instruments and burned them. The people who are taking over Gao think that their music is devil's music."

The regional Gao Orchestra, also known as the Songhai Stars, is the group Touré has fronted for decades, in addition to his solo career.

"In a world without music," he lamented, but also with anger in his eyes, "human beings will eat each other alive. Music and art are the things that help with understanding and help to keep people from doing bad things. If there's a world without art and music, what are people going to become? They will eat each other alive."

For Touré, music is everything. As a child, he fought with his family over pursuing a career in music, even after winning several national awards in his mid-20's, they refused to give up their disapproval.

His last name Touré, he explained, is what we would consider, a clan name. He is also a Songhai, a descendent of the ruling class of the great Islamic empire of Western Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries.

"Both Ali Farka Touré and I come from the same group of Songhai Tourés who come from the south of Mali," he said. "Also, the name Touré goes with people who are Marabus, people very well versed in the Koran, so that's why my family didn't want me to play music. A Touré is supposed to be in charge of a Koranic school or something more noble than a musician. For my family, it's only Griots who are supposed to sing."

A Griot, in Mali, is also a direct descendent from that era, but whose role was part-storyteller, part-village historian, and part-consigliere to the ruling class. "There is also a big difference between a Griot and a musician," he explained. "You are born a Griot, you don't become one, but others can become a musician. Griots can be musicians, but not all of them are musicians. It's not obligatory. They have a certain place in society, as storytellers, but it doesn't always have to do with music."

Nevertheless, he persisted, quite successfully, as both a solo performer and singer with the Songhai Stars. In 1996, he recorded his first solo record, hoping to reach a world audience. But it wasn't to be.

"My first album, Hoga," he said, "which was all about the environment, was supposed to come out in the US, but it was pirated in England and even the tour I was supposed to do 16 years ago, didn't happen. I didn't even get a single penny from that album. It was disappointing, but it made me even stronger and even more determined to keep going. I don't blame the record label in England, it wasn't their fault. Somebody in Mali or Senegal, I don't know who, stole the masters and sold them, and I couldn't do anything about getting the rights back."

Touré would have to wait until 2011 to have a second album released, Sahel Folk, in the West. He quickly followed it up with Koďma, released this year.

"There's a proverb that may not translate well into English," he responded as to whether he holds regrets that it's taken this long. "If you take your time to prepare something, it will serve you well. And this is what's happened now that I'm able to finally connect to the West.... Because if you're going to be disappointed and stop believing in what you're doing, the people who did you wrong win. A man has to believe in what he's doing to the very end."

And even his family has come around. "Maybe they've realized they were wrong before to not want me to be a musician, but they've accept it. Not everybody can do every kind of job in this world and they've understood that. So they see what I was meant to do is be a musician."

While the violence in Mali has just recently erupted, it had been brewing for some time. Touré spoke of his song Bamako, which he wrote in 1992 during the National Biennial celebration in the country's capitol city. "People from all the different regions came to celebrate their traditions, music, and exchange ideas," he recalled. "I was standing on top of a hill and saw all these parades. I saw a new breath of air in the future for Mali. And still, I do have this dream."

"In the song I say, 'You, the vultures' - these people who are trying to keep Mali from being democratic - 'Come out and see what this democracy is doing for this country and what it will soon do for other African countries.... Come look at what we've done."

"Mali is a multi-cultural, multi-racial country, and there are many empires within Mali from time immemorial," he continued. "The people have always lived together and they should continue to live together. That song is still played all over the African TV and the radio, and it should still be a goal for the way Mali should be."

"I'm glad to be able to travel right now because it helps me to not be totally stressed out about the situation and still feel inspired as an artist," he admitted. "And at the same time not everybody watches TV and listens to the radio, so maybe with this tour maybe I can help educate people and pass on information about the reality in Mali.... I play to make myself happy and to make others happy. We saw how the crowd was responding and it made us really happy."

He is also unable to hide his joy in being able to interact with and be exposed to other types of music, such as he was able to do here in Montreal before and after his show.

"Any kind of music can inspire me," he noted. "Even yesterday, we were walking around the festival and I could have just gone and started singing with some of the groups I saw, because I see the links. It's not a secret that there's a connection with the blues because, of course, all the Black Americans originally came from West Africa, and they continued to play music they knew on different instruments. It was transposed in a different way and began to be called jazz and blues. But I started to play this music before I ever knew who John Lee Hooker, for example, was, but now when I listen to it, I see, of course, there's a big link."

"When you travel, it's the give and take with other musicians that really is inspiring," he added. "I'm really hoping to do is be able to see the really famous stars of jazz and blues who are still living and maybe jam with them one day."

Touré will continue his summer tour throughout both Canada and the United States before returning home to Gao.

When asked if he is concerned about returning in the midst of such turmoil, Touré answered, "Before I left on tour and everyone was asking me not to come back, I told them, 'This is where I was born. I don't care. And maybe that's where I'm going to die.' So I want to go back."

"It's just the right timing for me to reach the West with the current tragedy," he added. "I want to use a quote from Bob Marley: 'I can fight without picking up arms.' And I feel I can do that with my music."

"The support of Europe and the Western world is really important right now in Mali. It doesn't matter how much you have to either eat or drink or whatever, if you don't have freedom it doesn't matter," he said. "My hope is for peace in Mali and that the Western world pays attention to us and really tries to help people who are being murdered and starved. We just want peace."

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