The songwriter and guitarist Sidi Touré is a superstar in his native Mali. But in the last 18 months, it hasn't been easy for Malian artists.
Islamic extremists are fighting for control of the area around Timbuktu, in the northern part of the country. The violence, along with a rebel-imposed ban on both music and secular art, has forced many of Mali's artists to flee the country.
Sidi Touré, who is from the North, was in the middle of recording his latest album when all this started happening.
"I have to say, all of the things that happened in Mali in the last year were very painful," he says, through a translator. "They weren't fun to watch, and they weren't fun to experience. But since I'm an artist, and all of us artists — we have a duty to move forward, and to keep going, and to continue to make music.
The new album Alafia, meaning "peace," comes out on Tuesday. While celebrating on his U.S. tour, Touré spoke with Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden from WBEZ in Chicago.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Art can be born of strife and hardship and sometimes thrives in spite of it. Sidi Toure is an example of that. He's a super star in his native country of Mali. But artists there have had a difficult time in the past year-and-a-half. Islamic extremists are fighting for control of the area around Timbuktu in the north of the country. The violence has forced many of the region's artists to flee. In the midst of the strife, Sidi Toure recorded a new album. It's called Alafia or peace.
He's touring the U.S. now and stopped by member station WBEZ in Chicago with his tour manager and translator Karima Daoudi. Hello. Is this Sidi Toure?
SIDI TOURE: Hi. (French spoken)
KARIMA DAOUDI: Hi, I'm Karima.
LYDEN: I asked Toure how the word home affected his latest album.
TOURE: (Through translator) I have to say that all of the things that happened in Mali in the last year were very painful. They weren't fun to watch, and they weren't fun to experience. So especially in the north, the musicians from the north weren't able to play their music. So they all came down to Bamako to be able to continue with their professions. And I started this album before all of the horrible things started happening, and I finished it after. So it was my duty to keep going.
LYDEN: Tell me a little bit about the history of the Songhai, would you? It's such an amazing region dating back to medieval times, an ancient place with a lot of folk traditions. I'd like to know more about it.
TOURE: (Through translator) I come from the town of Gao, which is the Songhai capital. And the Songhai capital is important because we had ancient kings, and they were actually the first kings to bring Islam to our region. You can also find Arabs in Gao, and you can also find Pular people in Gao. But it's like what I sing about in my songs. We've lived together for so many years, we've married each other, we've had children together. We have to learn how to live together.
LYDEN: So please give me a song, a track on this album that really reflects what you're telling me about right now.
TOURE: (Through translator) I would choose the song "Mali" on the new album because if Mali has anything worthwhile, it's cultural diversity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MALI")
LYDEN: So there's another song on this album I love called "My Takamba." And this is a song about celebration, sharing music on the road. Tell us what a takamba is, would you please?
TOURE: (Through translator) Takamba is a kind of music that's danced to during happy times. After the rain comes, takamba is danced. When people are joyful, takamba is danced. And people play it at any time when they're happy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY TAKAMBA")
LYDEN: And I understand also that sometimes a takamba will praise a specific person? Is that true? You'll sing the praises of an elder, for example?
TOURE: (Through translator) Takamba can be used to sing for nobles. In "My Takamba," I'm really singing for all the nobles of Mali to come together and dance together and have a happy time again, to reconcile all our problems.
LYDEN: A song of unity. I'd like you to tell me more about the instruments that we hear in this album. I mean, we hear some guitar, but there's a lot of regional instruments made even from things that grow there, that we see there. Would you talk to me about some of those?
TOURE: (Through translator) Well, first of all, I'll start with this young man sitting next to me, the ngoni virtuoso Abdulai Kone.
LYDEN: And that is the precursor to the guitar. This is a stringed instrument.
TOURE: (Through translator) Yes, it's the string instrument. It's a traditional guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: And what about this calabash? This is like a big gourd that gets made into a drum?
TOURE: (Through translator) Oh, yes. The calabash is a traditional instrument. And it is a big gourd that you cut in half, and you turn it upside down and put it on a flat surface with some sort of towel or something underneath it. And it creates a bass sound and also a percussive sound on the top that, for me personally, I've never heard anywhere else. I love the calabash.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Many American musicians are drawn to your music and the music of Mali. And this fall, you're touring with the Grammy-nominated blues artist Cedric Watson. And I think a lot of listeners might almost hear a blues influence in your music. Did you listen to blues as a young artist?
TOURE: (Through translator) That's a very good question. When I put out my very first album, I had an American friend listen to it. And he said: Oh, you're playing Mississippi blues, you're playing, like, John Lee Hooker style. And I said: Who's John Lee Hooker? Where's Mississippi? I'd never heard of anything like that. And my friend told me your song is just like the song "How, How, How, How" from John Lee Hooker.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TOURE: (Through translator) So one day I was walking around the market in Bamako, and I saw a vendor who sells cassette tapes. And I saw one cassette tape that said "King of the Blues." And I bought it right away. And that's how I discovered John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and many others.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOM BOOM")
JOHN LEE HOOKER: (Singing) Boom, boom, boom, boom. Mm-mm-mm. Mm-hmm-hmm-hmm.
LYDEN: You know, it's delicious that we're speaking to you in Chicago. We, of course, think of that as the home of the blues, having traveled up the Mississippi. Are you going to be playing with any Chicago blues artists?
TOURE: (Through translator) I would love to. It would be a family affair. We know that blues left Africa. And so if we got to all play together, it would be like a marvelous time. I really hope I can play with some Chicago bluesmen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LYDEN: Sidi Toure's new album is called "Alafia," and he's on a U.S. tour right now. And we're speaking to him in the great city of Chicago. Sidi Toure, merci beaucoup. Mon plaisir.
TOURE: Merci beaucoup.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.