Global Beat: Sidi Touré

“You know, I’ve always avoided speaking too much about politics. But even if you don’t engage in politics, politics will engage with you,” Sidi Touré says. It’s several weeks before Election Day in the U.S., but the acclaimed singer-songwriter and guitarist isn’t talking about the West’s situation. Touré is from Mali, and it’s his home continent that concerns him. The title of his latest album, Afrik Toun Mé, translates to Africa Must Unite.

“Africa must stand up,” Touré adds. “I cannot speak on behalf of the entire continent, but I will speak of Mali, and perhaps it may relate to other countries as well. In a democracy, the leaders are often not at the same level as the people. We think that they must lead people, [but] it’s the people underneath them that count. What we have been seeing recently [in Mali] are leaders who want to be in an elevated position but forget about the people beneath them. Unity is power. The United States is 50 states, there is a strong European Union. Why not a strong African Union? Why do people refuse to work together? It is high time that our leaders come together so that Africa can finally become the Africa of our dreams.”

Afrik Toun Mé is an all-acoustic album released only digitally, a departure from 2018’s electric, full-band effort Toubalbero. Accompanied simply by a second acoustic guitarist, Mamadou Kelly, and Boubou Diallo, who plays a gourd drum called the calabash, Touré offers a series of hypnotic, captivating melodies throughout Afrik Toun Mé’s eight songs. The fingerpicked, swirling guitar lines intertwine seamlessly and Touré’s vocals—sung in his native Songhaï language— are irresistibly sweet and compelling.

It is not necessary to know that, in his lyrics, Touré is specifically addressing issues vital to Africans, even if those sentiments, in translation, can easily be applied globally. The songs that comprise Afrik Toun Mé were in fact recorded in 2016, around the same time as his previous set; with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant curtailment of touring, Touré felt that now would be the ideal time to release them as an album. To him, the songs are all part of a continuum.

“There was not really a major difference in the writing process,” he says of the two companion recordings. “When I sleep, I am inspired. When I wake up, I am inspired. When I take a shower, I am inspired. I’m inspired at night by the stars, and I’m inspired by the river Niger.”

He was also, for this set of songs, inspired by technology. “An educated population is a population that advances,” Touré explains. “If people have been able to create all of this new technology—the iPhone, the iPad, whatever—it’s because they got an education. So it’s a call to parents to support their children’s education so that they might become the intellectuals of tomorrow and create new technologies and new enterprises that may help to develop Africa and solve our problems.”

Sidi Touré was originally from Gao, in northeastern Mali, and came up in the nation’s capital city of Bamako in the south. His musical career began in the 1980s, with a group called Songhaï Stars, and his solo career took off during the following decade. He released Sahel Folk, his debut album for the American label Thrill Jockey, in 2011. Then, the following year, Islamist extremists staged a coup in northern Mali, including Gao. They banned all music there, but Touré has remained in Bamako, where he has been able to continue doing what he loves to do.

“It hasn’t prevented me from making music,” Touré says of the takeover. “We have always criticized bad governance and financial delinquency and the people who have robbed this country. With this album, I’m trying to motivate African leaders to work together, to listen to their people, so that what has been happening to us no longer happens anymore. I give lots of advice on this album.”

Touré wears his heritage proudly, and as others before him have done, he makes a point of connecting his music to several popular Western genres. “If you listen deeply to Songhaï music, you can trace the origins of the blues, jazz and even rock,” he says. “It’s all trance music to a certain degree. I think what we play here is the mother and, on the other side [of the Atlantic], you have the children and the grandchildren.”

In fact, Touré adds, “My music is maybe more appreciated in America than in Mali. We’ve been able to play at bigger festivals and venues in the U.S. There are rarely Malians in the audience; it is mostly Americans that come. Maybe it’s due to the resemblance between our music and the blues and jazz—I don’t know. In any case, I feel like my music is listened to more widely in the U.S. than in my own country. I don’t need to run after anyone; if somebody books me, it’s because they think my music has a particular value, and if they don’t, I will simply search for another route. What I always want the American people to know is that, when I play, I give my whole heart. And when I put an album out, I hope that they will buy it and enjoy it because they will find themselves inside my music.”

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