Less than a year before his death, Ali Farka Touré's last concerts in 2005 were extraordinary in their power and depth of purpose. Surrounded by the musicians with whom he recorded his final solo album, Savane - a band that included Bessekou Kouyate, now a star in his own right - the Malian master played with a gravity and fluency that other musicians can only dream of.
The centrepiece of the concert was a series of duets between Ali and the genius of the kora, Toumani Diabaté - duets put down on tape in single takes, with no rehearsals, over the course of three afternoons the previous summer in the conference suite of the Hotel Mande in Bamako. The two of them drew on the music of Malian independence - as well as Mande, Sonrai, and Dogon pieces, some dating back to the 17th century - and turned them into freshly minted gold.
On stage at the Barbican, sitting close together as they would have done in those seemingly casual recording sessions, Ali and Toumani spun a music of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. "Like a slow exhalation of breath," Toumani told me later of their playing together. "I didn't want to stop playing, and Ali didn't want to stop, and you see it in the concert. We just go deeper and deeper." Unbeknown to their ecstatic audience, the duo had spent the days preceding the concert at a recording studio in north London, with the veteran Buena Vista bassist Caichito Lopez joining them as they put down an album's worth of seemingly effortless performances that would stay quietly resting in the record company's vaults after the shock of Ali's death in March 2006.
Until now, that is. "While we were preparing to tour, I said to Nick Gold at World Circuit, I think the world today needs this kind of music," Toumani remembers. "Music that is acoustic, and that is talking about culture, and that is also like a medicine, a therapy. So I said to Nick, I want to record more music with Ali, could you bring us earlier to London so that we have some time?" "The impetus for getting them back into the studio came from Toumani," Gold agrees, "because he was fired up with what might happen. But if Toumani or Ali ever came and told me they wanted to record I'd just say yes. Especially Ali, because Ali didn't like recording very much."
"I spoke to Ali and he said 'no problem'," Toumani says. "Ali never said no to me." Over three sessions that began at around midday and concluded in the late afternoon, the two of them, with Caichito Lopez, recorded 11 songs, drawn from Mali's Peul, Songhai and Mande song traditions. "So it's putting these different elements together," says Toumani, "like cooking, putting in some pepper, some hot chilli, some beans." And like its Grammy Award-winning predecessor, it is a dish to savour, to share with friends, to sit down with and lose yourself in.
"As at the Mande sessions, we didn't practise or rehearse," Toumani says. "It wasn't needed. We took some suggestions from Nick, who'd ask us to try this or that song. But there was no pressure, they were simply suggestions. And it was great. It was all about the spirit of playing together. I played the music with the same spirit that Ali played. Not for commercial ends, or only for today, but for generation after generation after generation to listen to."
From the circling riff of the opening Ruby - a song picked up literally on the road by Ali near his hometown of Niafunke and dedicated to Gold's young daughter, who was sitting at the guitarist's feet as this track was recorded - through the extraordinarily moving Be Mankan, an ancient Mande song based on a text that reads, "it is the blessings that make the tears fall", to the delicate, gossamer touches that illuminate DouDou - named after Ali's youngest son - the deep sense of intimacy, interconnection and respect between the two shines out.
"Ali and I had more time than we had in the Mande Sessions. And the conditions were different. I think this is a better record than the first. It is a wiser record. It was finishing the circle. Ali was closing the circle with these recordings. Listen to this second album, and there is more feeling and more and more experience. It is deeper than In The Heart of the Moon, a continuation of what we began at the Mande sessions."
One of the album's central performances is the mythical Sina Mory, a song derived from a Malian folk tale of an orphan boy whose stepmother conspires to poison him when she hears that he will one day become king - an archetypal tale that probably inhabits every folk culture on earth. "We rehearsed it in the studio and then we played it," Toumani remembers, "and he said, 'that was the very first song that I heard played on the guitar, from Fodeba Keita. That's what encouraged me to play the guitar and dedicate myself to it'. During all his years with Ry Cooder, and all the things that he did, he never touched that song. He never played it on any of his albums. And he was very, very happy to make that record at the end."
Was he returning to it in the knowledge that his time was short? "It's incredibly difficult to know whether this awareness coloured his playing," Gold says, "because you can't avoid hindsight. But it seems to me that Ali's performance in the studio was deeper, heavier and more searching than on In The Heart Of The Moon." As Gold stresses, there is no grandstanding here, no showing off, no technical indulgence. Ali wove musical figures small enough to fit in your hand, and as big as the sky, establishing a frame in which Toumani's improvisations run and weave their magic. "He was the elder, he was the support in the music," Toumani says, "and it's like, 'I'm here, go where you want to go, come back when you like'. It's like that, a free line. 'Go Toumani, play what you want to play. Show to the people. And I play the line.'
Ali was an artist who stayed close to his sources . He often called himself a farmer who happened to play guitar. In the great circular forms he invokes in the duets, one senses an unboundaried reach that is bigger than any single song, or any single hand. It is the feel of the very landscape and the forces behind it being raised up. "To produce something, you have to quest for it," he told me when I met him in Brussels in 2005, before his first concert with Toumani at the Bozar concert hall. Under the surface of his playing, you sensed a musician plumbing bottomless depths, playing not to the House of the Blues so much as the house of the spirits.
"Some of the music I know how to play I will never play on stage," he told me, smoking continuously in a beige hotel suite while talking of the origins of his music, embedded in a spirit world that was as real to him as roots and seeds are to a farmer - which he also was. "To communicate with the spirits, you need to know the particular music to get in touch with them and there are elements of that music that are completely secret," he continued, and talked of his childhood possession by djinn spirits - belief in which still holds sway in Malinese culture.
His grandmother, Kounandi Samba, was a Ghimbhala priestess, and he was thought capable of following in her footsteps. "Imagine someone is sick," he told me, "and you can't do anything. Something's wrong, but you don't know what it is. That person will be brought to someone like me, and using the music, usually I will be able to diagnose the problem." Alas, his own problems, if not undiagnosed, could not be treated. Few in the audiences at those last concerts would have been aware of how ill he was, or that he would die within a year. What we all understood was the indelible force of his technique, knowledge and imagination in performance. These last recordings, of course, do not encompass that secret, sacred repertoire, but it is hard to deny the tangible therapeutic benefits of simply listening to the inspired, seemingly effortless interplay between two masters of their art. The music is so fine it's as if you absorb it through the skin as well as the ears.
"As a kora player he has no equal," Ali said of Toumani. "He can be compared to a library, a library of Malian culture, and there are many more books to be opened." And the "books" opened by the duets they recorded together must be some of the most beautifully illuminated in the whole library. "No matter how many times I listen to these recordings, their power and beauty don't diminish at all," Gold says.
"The music pulls you in. It's very powerful but so unaggressive, so unflashy. It's just this incredible partnership." Ali and Toumani is out now on World Circuit.