Ali Farka Toure-Ni Foli

September 8, 2012

Ali Farka Toure

Ni Foli (Self-released cassette in 1984/reissued on vinyl by Social Music)

This is one of the more surprising revelations I’ve come across in recent memory. I’ve loved Ali Farka Toure for years, but my gateway to his universe came through his collaborations with Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate which kind of envisioned a universe where John Lee Hooker was classically trained and born in Mali. All of his work throughout the late 80s until his death in 2006 center around Toure’s delicate and elegant guitar work that paints an intricate landscape for his bluesy and rhythmic intonations as he sings along to what has been described by others as the “sahara blues.” Now, all of these albums are pretty stellar and not a stinker is to be found in the bunch, but the calm, cool and collected nature of this long string of albums did not prepare me for the raw and raunchy guitar riffs of Ni Foli where Toure’s playing aims for a union of dissonant psychedelic rock, funk, blues and traditional Malian music that is downright mindblowing and life-affirming.

Originally released on a cassette in 1984, Ni Foli was a forgotten footnote until it was recently reissued on limited edition vinyl by the Social Music label this year. Sadly, it is already out of print, which is a shame since it is one of those rare albums that emanate this powerful vibe that is entirely unique to that moment in which it was recorded. You shake the hamster cage in your mind for something else that could possibly compare and you are left scratching your head because there are none because Ni Foli is entirely its own self-contained musical universe that no one ever quite matched or copied because it has that ineffable magic that makes all of your favorite albums so special. I swear there are moments on Ni Foli’s second track “Hondia” that kind of remind me of a Velvet Undergound bootleg of their jammiest, most serpentine moments transported to Mali as Toure just flails away on his guitar and plays one of those riffs that are so goddamn raw and righteous that you wish it would kind of go on forever because it constantly finds a new psychedelic pathway to travel. It is a ramshackle, shambling beast that maintains a graceful aura due to Toure’s ability to rein in the fury and keep his band locked in a sloppily hypnotic groove. Plus, you got to love the flute soloing on this kind of kicks as much ass as Toure’s guitar playing on this one.

Although “Hondia” is the showstopper here, the opening track “Farri” is equally potent, albeit more dissonant and abstract as it seemingly emanates from some alien universe that I would love to travel to immediately. The percussion is spot-0n perfect for this track as it sounds so goddamned stoned as it percolates and stutters in unison with Toure as he slowly unreels an epic solo where the notes all kind of smear into one another, yet maintain some earthly connection with what passes for blues and funk on our planet. In between these long bouts of instrumental perfection, Toure’s vocals almost serve as another percussive element as he always makes sure that his intonations jive with the rhythms laid down by the band.

I wish it was possible to sit down with Ali Farka Toure and discuss how he made the leap from the sloppy and psychedelic African blues of Ni Foli to the pristine and proper terrain he later mastered. I love both phases, but Ni Foli is on a wavelength few ever tapped into during their musical careers and I pray that I discover more who fly the same freak flag before I die because I wish this album lasted for days upon days.


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