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Gig Review :: Vieux Farka Toure :: Blue Frog, Nov 29th 2011

Mumbai gets a taste of Malian blues… with a few desi twists. 

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The same can be said about Vieux Farka Touré, son of legendary African guitarist, Ali Farka Touré, who was at Blue Frog in Mumbai on 29th November, the last destination in his tour this year. But he is not one to bask in the reflected glory of his ancestry; quite the contrary. Largely hailed as the Jimi Hendrix of North Africa, Touré lets his guitar do all the talking… or singing, if you wish. Quite literally.

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At first glance, viewing Touré clad in his traditional Malian robes, a gold chain and a black, peaked Stetson-like hat, smiling at you with his pearly whites, you might be caught completely off guard, mistaking him for… well, anything other than a musician.

Within mere seconds of him playing even a few bars on the guitar, however, all such previous apprehension disappears in an instant, as you become entranced in coming to terms with reality. At least, such is the effect Touré will have on skeptics. His songs may lack the usual structure where the music is focused around the lyrics – but fortunately, this is a good thing, since we then get to witness more of his lightning fast guitaring.

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Touré is accompanied by a bassist, a comical acoustic guitarist (he dances a slow jig while strumming and pretends he is going forwards on a backwards moving treadmill – all on stage), and an amazing percussionist. One very notable aspect about the percussionist – besides his energy – is his instrument.

To the untrained eye, it might look like he was tapping and clapping an upturned armadillo shell with chopsticks, but on closer inspection, his ‘drum set’ was actually a beautifully hollow baked semi-circular bowl, covered with cowhide, called a … actually, I don’t know. 

I was way too mesmerized by the variety of sounds it produced upon being struck with thin bamboo sticks as well as the bottom parts of the palms that I forgot to inquire about the name of this traditional percussive instrument. And it forms the perfect accompaniment to Touré’s brand of desert blues. 

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Most of Touré’s songs might sound very similar to those generally unfamiliar with his repertoire; from afar, it may seem like nothing more than a steady drums and bass, smooth transitions in major chords on rhythm and a lead guitar dominating the scene with its superfast, uninterrupted upbeat melodies – one may even go as far as to say that if you heard one song, you heard them all. But that is certainly not the case.

The more discerning viewers would notice the subtle changes in tempo and timbre, as the guitars make way for the occasional vocals in Malian languages, as well as the tenacity of the guitar solos; there were parts when Touré’s soloing went on for so long that one would actually lose track of how and where he started, so much so that even air guitar heros wouldn’t be able to keep up. And he did this all with immaculate grace.

After the first few numbers, Touré welcomed on stage Mumbai’s very own guitar virtuoso, Dhruv Ghanekar, for a brief collaboration. After a little bit of live jamming, the two engaged themselves into an exciting duel – Touré’s tinny Godin versus Dhruv’s earthy PRS – challenging each other lick for lick, employing all the tricks of the trade, from fingerpicking to tremolos to whammies… and although their duel may have ended in a truce, the audience was the real winner in this battle.

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After Dhruv left the stage amidst a loud round of applause, we thought it’d be back to the usual, with Touré launching yet another volley of fingerstyle attacks on his strings, he brought in Mahesh Vinayakram to accompany him on vocals.

Beaming magnificently, Vinayakram too jammed along for a bit, and then engaged Touré in direct musical combat, egging and goading Touré’s guitar riffs with Carnatic chanting. At one point, this battle became so vicious that Touré actually had to admit defeat – he had actually run out of frets to scratch and mute before Vinayakram had even completed his assault. Once again, the audience won.

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It was only after seizing an idle moment that I glanced around and noticed a full house at Blue frog – everyone was clapping and jiving along with the infectious beats. Vieux Farka Touré’s fame seemed to have preceded him, as the place was packed with all kinds of fans – young and old, expats and local aficionados. Occasionally, even the waiters were seen nodding and bouncing their heads along with the music. But who could help it? The music created an atmosphere that was just that contagious.

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After playing for nearly two hours, including an encore performance (which seems to be quite the trend at such events now, doesn’t it?), Touré ended the night by posing for pictures with joyous fans, while we headed out, bent on going home and researching more about music from Mali.


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