MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Throughout the West African country of Mali, radio stations have halted their regular programming, and they're taking time to honor one of Africa's best known musicians, the legendary guitarist and singer, Ali Farka Toure.
Toure, who was in his mid 60s, died today after a long bout with cancer. He saw himself as a traditional African storyteller and musician, albeit one who loved to listen to Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. While on tour in the U.S. in 1993, he stopped by NPR's New York studio, and, through a translator, spoke about the link between his sound and the soulful blues music of the American south.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALI FARKA TOURE MUSIC)
ALI FARKA TOURE: (Through Translator) People that made the blues didn't know where it came from, and they didn't know its significance. What he speaks of and what he sings comes from him and it is authentic. He knows tradition, and legend, and the history of this art form.
NORRIS: Toure's music was loved in the region where he was born in the north of Mali, and he gained a worldwide following. He won a Grammy Award for an album with another legendary guitarist, Ry Cooder. It was called Talking Timbuktu. Banning Eyre is the Senior Editor of Afropop.org and a music critic for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. He says Toure began his career playing a single-string, fiddle-like instrument called a gorkel(ph).
BANNING EYRE: This is an instrument through which spirits spoke. For him to play it, it had nothing to do with musical training, technical stuff, not even so much culture. It was a mystical experience, a kind of possession. I mean, he was a man who was surrounded by spirits all the time.
NORRIS: How is he viewed in his home country?
EYRE: Ali had achieved this kind of statesman-like status. The fact that he was so loved in the world, the fact that he was recognized by the Grammy Award and, now yet, another one just this year for his album with Toumani Diabate. It's, you know, that sort of thing earns you respect, even if the music you're playing isn't the favorite music of, you know, the majority of the population.
NORRIS: Outside of Mali, where do we hear his influence?
EYRE: You know, he was the beginning of this whole phenomenon of people associating Mali with the roots of the blues. And that has led a whole stream of European and American musicians, you know, from Bonnie Raitt, Bella Fleck, Taj Mahal, many others, Ry Cooder, to either really get engaged with his music and to try to see how it resonates with what they're doing or even to actually go to Mali and collaborate with all kinds of other musicians whose music seems to be bear some kind of connection with the blues.
So I think that what I've seen over the last few years is this, more and more that this whole idea that there's this African connection to the blues is becoming more than just an abstract idea, it's becoming concrete. And I think that, gradually, that's having an impact on blues and rock musicians, and I expect that this will continue because it's a very intoxicating experience. And Ali really was the pioneer of this whole phenomenon, so he deserves to be sort of credited as the father of a young, but growing, movement.
NORRIS: Banning, what's your favorite Ali Farker Toure song?
EYRE: It's called Goye Kur. It just captures that kind of mystical aspect of his music. Every time I hear that song, it sends chills down my spine. So, just the sound of it and the emotional power of his guitar and his vocal performance in that. I think that would be my choice.
NORRIS: Banning Eyre is the Senior Editor of Afropop.org. He spoke to us about musician Ali Farka Toure, who died today at his home in Mali.
You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALI FARKA TOURE MUSIC)