When I reached Nick Gold, the creator of World Circuit records, by Zoom in London, he had recently returned from a trip to Mali and Senegal, his first visit there in years. He started out in Wassoulou country, in the town of Yanfolila, where Oumou Sangare has been producing an annual festival of Wassoulou music for the past five years. It’s a three-day, free festival on a huge open-air stage just outside of town. As Oumou told us last fall, she has constructed a hotel and bungalows for VIPs, so it’s a comfortable and accessible event for visitors. Nick says that the vast majority of attendees this year were from the region, so there’s huge local support.
Nick found the musical performances top-flight, with loads of young kamelengoni players and ensembles. There was a mix of rap, pop and tradition. Oumou performed every day, sometimes with her own group, sometimes with others. Nick’s only complaint was exhaustion. As Oumou’s V.I.P. guest, he sat next to her in the front row until the wee hours of the morning night after night. On one occasion as things wrapped up between three and four a.m., Oumou insisted that they go and check out her nightclub! The woman is tireless.
The next weekend, Nick flew to Dakar to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Orchestra Baobab. This was a star-studded affair: guests included Baaba Maal, Omar Pene and Ismael Lô. One can only imagine.
Then it was back to Mali for the Ali Farka Toure festival, right outside Ali’s Bamako home in Lafiabougou, just down the street from where I lived in 1995-96 while apprenticing with guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and researching my book In Griot Time. Here was another three-day extravaganza in open air, featuring lots of music from the north—Baba Salah, Samba Toure, The Ali Farka Toure Ban, and others. Our friend Paul Chandler of Instruments For Africa had his team there doing sound, and in fact, recording, as you’ll see in this interview.
One important note: Nick said that, despite the dire warnings from various governments and other officials about the dangers of traveling in Mali, he felt safe in Bamako and Yanfolila. These and other Malian festivals are happening, and attending them is probably no more dangerous than a highway drive on an American freeway. Food for thought…
At last our conversation came around to the new, posthumous Ali Farka Toure release, Voyageur. One might say that the centerpiece of the album are three tracks featuring Ali and Oumou Sangare, recorded in the mid 1990s, when Ali had become a Grammy winner, and Oumou was fast on the rise as the Queen of Wassoulou music. Oumou had her kamelengoni player Benogo Diakite, and Ali had his band, including the late Hama Sankare on calabash. As one can hear on these tracks, the musicians clicked on a deep level, and that’s where our conversation began.
Banning Eyre: So Nick, those tracks with Oumou were all recorded in 1994?
Nick Gold: Something like that. I can't remember exactly. I'm terrible with dates, Banning.
But it was the ’90s. It was around the time of Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. Did all that recording happen in one day?
Yeah, well, I think they met the evening before and chatted, and then the actual session took place the next day. I’m not certain, but I think Oumou was coming off the back of that Africa Fête tour. I may be getting jumbled with dates.
That sounds right. It’s interesting that these tracks were made so long ago. I remember when we were in Mali in 2003 for the Festival in the Desert, there was this very strong connection between the two of them. There’s that bit in in our film about the festival where Ali gets up and dances with Oumou and then later says he was embarrassed because he wasn't wearing the right clothes.
Yeah. Well, that's a piece of magic. One thing about their relationship. Very, very early on, before we released Oumou’s first record, when it was just on cassette, I remember being in Bamako and you just heard it everywhere: in a taxi, in the market, everywhere. And Ali was a very early supporter of hers, especially at that time when what she was saying was pretty radical. [Oumou’s first album, Moussoulou, critiqued sensitive issues surrounding marriage, polygamy and child-rearing.] But Ali was a very early supporter. I think, that’s where he got to know her as well. So he championed her.
Fascinating. You mentioned that of the three tracks they did together, one of them had not been planned.
Yes, “Sajona.” They were doing a mic test, Oumou was just singing into the microphone like “1, 2, 1, 2,” and she just went off and started singing. And Benogo joined in with kamelengoni and then Ali joined in, Hama on calabash joined in. I was outside in the studio and I had to turn around to the recording booth, because it was the days of analog so there was a limited amount of tape, and I had to say, “Record! Record!” So we got it. The time it took to do the song was what you hear on the record and it's pure Wassoulou music, absolutely Oumou’s forte. And she just nailed it. Amazing.
The other two songs are “Cherie,” a song both artists had sung before. But then there’s the Fulani song, “Bandoloboourou.” I recall Ali talking about this, how he urged Oumou to sing in Fulani, the original language of Wassoulou, but long since replaced by Bambara.
Yes. She practiced it and learned it. Ali used to tease her about not singing in her ancestral language, Fulani, and it was this song, “Bandoloboourou,” which he gave her the night before the recording. At the beginning, she was singing it phonetically because she doesn't speak that language herself. But she grew into it pretty quick and I thought she did a hell of a job on it.
Beautiful. Let's talk about other tracks on the album. I imagine you've got a lot of tracks in the vault. How did you pick these?
Well, I've been listening to those tracks for years and years and years. They've been little favorites of mine. And it wasn’t until I'd sort of been pulling them together, that I realized there was an album, or that there was a cohesive whole to it. So choosing them? They were just favorites I'd had for ages. So it was basically difficult getting rid of songs rather than finding songs. And then once we had chosen the songs, I started to work with the Vieux as well, Ali’s son. We started to listen to the songs together. I sent all of the recordings over to Vieux and asked what he thought. And he started making little suggestions for overdubs. So he would be overdubbing in Bamako.
Oh. He's overdubbed on some of these.
Yeah. He arranged overdubs and he plays a little bit of guitar on it. He arranged for a Tuareg guitarist on “Malahani,” because that song is from the borders of Mali and Niger, up in the north, so he thought that would be appropriate. Then I was watching a lot of video footage and I saw some bits of him rehearsing where he's rehearsing backing vocals. But on our recordings, we didn't have them. So one of the other things we were able to do was sort of realize what he might have done if he had finished these tracks himself.
There's more backing vocals from the girls than we're used to with Ali. But again, if you listen to a lot of Ali’s very early recordings, there are female vocal choruses on them I think was inspired by his early days listening to Les Ballets Africains from Guinea.
Right, where he famously spent time with Fodeba Keita in the ‘60s.
Some of this didn't click until we started doing it, so that’s where some of that came from. Maybe we hadn't thought enough about the much larger ensembles that he was used to working with in his youth when he was leading the Niafunke national troupe and working with the Mopti regional orchestra. He had been used to working with much larger ensembles.
I remember that was something that you were hoping to recreate on the Niafunke album, though he wasn’t able to pull together the big group you had envisioned.
[Nick chuckles at the memory.]
I don’t yet have the sleeve notes for this album, but I'll get them. I did not realize that you’d done some overdubbing on these tracks.
Yeah. There's touches. There's not a huge amount. Some have got a little bit more than others. It was great working with Vieux as well, because he was very enthusiastic about it, and he came up with things that I'd never have thought of. But of course he knew his dad.
He's so impressive. I guess we're going to see him over here in a month or so. On this album, you have two versions of “Sambadio,” which is such a great song. They're very different. Talk about those two.
“Sambadio.” Ali loved that song. I think it's a very beautiful song as well. So the first version on the record is a very traditional one with the three ngonis that we had on the Savane album. So you got Mama Sissoko, Bassekou Kouyaté and Dassy Sarré all playing ngonis and singing with a chorus. That's a traditional version of it, very beautiful. I think towards the end, there's some really lovely guitar-playing from Ali.
For the other one, Ali did one session with Pee Wee Ellis. He was the saxophone arranger with James Brown and then with Van Morrison. They did this one session together and Pee Wee arranged horns for it. And then the ride-out section has got this other because Pee Wee played this riff and Ali said, “What about the end of the riff?”
And Pee Wee is going, “What do you mean? I've just written it.” And Ali was going, “No, then it goes…” and he just sang the resolution of this thing Pee Wee went, “O.K.!” So that went down as well. Ali was really into the horns, much more than I'd appreciated. But of course, he was a huge James Brown fan.
I imagine the Pee Wee Ellis session happened when you were doing Oumou’s album Worotan, the one with his horn arranging.
It was all in that era. Yeah.
“Safari” is on what we call the Red album, from way back. That’s one of those early Sonodisc albums. I now understand that that album was hugely influential on all the Tuareg bands, because that was the album that came out from Ali while they were in exile in the refugee camps in Algeria. That album apparently was influential on Tinariwen.
I think it's not called “Safari” on that record. It might have a different title.
What about the last track, “Kombo Galia”?
“Kombo Galia” was done in the sessions for Savane, but we couldn't release it at the time because, I don't know, something messed up with the multi tracks, but eventually we were able to get it together. But I love that track. There's something within that track that might be a bit spooky, because I remember when we were recording it, people left the studio thinking we shouldn't be doing that track. There's a slightly mystical element to it which we don't quite understand. I don't quite understand. But it's one of those things where Ali would just go. He only did what he wanted.
He wanted it.
Yeah, he wanted it. And it's got amazing, really raunchy distorted guitar. It sounds like the whole village has come out to meet him.
Well, it's a terrific album. I'm sure it'll be very widely loved by his fans. Is there more in the vault? I mean, can we imagine future Ali releases?
There are bits more, yeah. There's some acoustic stuff, which is very pared down. It wouldn't have sat with this at all. And then there is a bit more local cassette-recorded material and then there's a lot of live stuff as well.
Well, this is an excellent addition to a great catalog. So let's just talk a bit about the label World Circuit. I know that you don’t own it now, but you're still engaged somehow. How does that work now?
Well, my position now is I'm not really engaged. I work on very specific projects like this one. I'm working very slowly on an album with a duet album with Neba Solo and Benogo as well, which is slowly taking shape. But I'm very much just on a project-by-project basis now.
You mentioned Cheikh Lô. At WOMEX I picked up this album that he did with these musicians in Czechoslovakia, King’N’Doom. Have you heard their stuff?
He gave me it, but I haven't heard it yet.
The album he had two years ago I thought it was pretty cool. But last year he gave me this live album where they do a bunch of Cheikh’s songs and I think it's really good. It's a live show and he sings beautifully and the band plays really well. It’s a nice fit. I want to go back to the festivals for a minute. You said there are recordings from Ali’s festival.
Yes. So Maurice, who did the live sound, also captured a stereo feed of the whole thing, and within that, one of the things that I'm keen to hear back is every artist had to include an Ali cover or an Ali track of some sort, and some of them were fantastic. So I'm now waiting for Paul [Chandler] to pull everything together. I just thought it might be a really nice idea, a nice radio thing, to have samples from that festival, because there's a cohesion to it, in that it was all under the umbrella of Ali's name. I think all the tracks should sit nicely next to each other because they were the same person recording them, but they will be very different. And there was a lot of really high quality.
I bet there was. That's very interesting. I should mention that we're looking at unveiling a new, digital format in the coming year. It will be longer, more informal, more of-the-moment. Basically, the amount of music coming in right now in the download era is just a fire hose. And we do a lot of interviews, which we transcribe for the Web, but on air, you end up just being able to use just short clips. Georges and I have been talking and our new operations and new media person, Mukwae Wabei Siyolwe, a Namibian woman who lives in Mexico. She's lived all over the world and has been very involved in all sorts of African arts through her life. So we’re looking into a new format and I could imagine a great, long segment on those Ali festival recordings. We're going to take the summer to kind of figure out all the tech and then try to roll it out in the fall.
You could get Paul to hook you up with some of the musicians, get them together for interviews and so forth.
Absolutely. Anyway, we'll work on that. The idea is a more informal, semi-live presentation. I think after 35 years, we’re all ready for a change. I think you can relate.
Yes. I should say that I saw Djelimady [Tounkara] while I was there as well, who said hello to you. He was on good form. He was very chatty. His wife was on even better form.
Adama Kouyate. Yes, she’s a force. I saw Bassekou in Boston the other day, and he mentioned Djelimady, he said something like, “He’s old now.”
That wouldn't have been the word I would have chosen to describe him: old. He was in good humor.
Well, that's Bassekou, who is eternally youthful. On the Wassoulou festival, I had planned to go this year, but got talked out of it for security reasons. Next year, I’ll be more determined. Is that Ali festival timed to be a week after Oumou’s?
That was the plan. But then Oumou moved her festival back a week, which was in the end really fortuitous for me because by some happenstance, the weekend in the middle was the 50th anniversary of Orchestra Baobab in Dakar.
Nice. And then the following weekend, back to Bamako for the Ali Farka Toure Festival.
Yeah. Everything fell into place. It was wonderful. And the Baobab concert, Baba Maal was there, and Omar Pene from Super Diamono, Ismael Lô as well. It was full of wonderful guests, a great show.
Where did that happen?
At the Serrano. And then about two days later, they played in this amazing beach restaurant venue called The Sea At Your Table, La Mer a Table. I brought Cheikh Lô and he guested with them for a few songs. It was idyllic. Really, so wonderful.
I spoke to Baba recently about his new album, Being. Have you heard it?
It's really good, very different than other things he's done, very much his vision. A lot of it's acoustic and informal. I think it's the best thing he's done in a long time.
He was on great form and it was lovely to see him as well.
I don’t know if you heard this, but after his album Television in 2009 and his gig with Mumford and Sons, he said he was done making records. He said he wasn't going to do anymore. And then somehow during the pandemic, just hanging around, playing music freely with his friends, he started recording things. And at a certain point he thought, “Maybe I could do one more.”
You recently helped us digitize some footage from the Festival in The Desert in 2003. Thanks for that.
Have you watched much of it?
No, I'm saving it. I'm saving it. It's a treat.
It is really fun to watch. A lot of the incidental footage of what the scene was like is delightful. But I’m glad to know that festivals are happening again in Mali these days.
Yes. At the same time as the Ali Farka Toure Festival, there was a three day Donso festival, a hunters festival. And also the same weekend, there was Manny Ansar [creator of the Festival in the Desert] had a Desert Festival, just outside just outside Bamako.
Wow. They did all three of them at once. There's hope, I suppose, as long as you don't read the news. It doesn't sound like there's much hope at all when you read the international press about Mali.
Well, no. Just as I was going there my brother started texting me what he was photo-grabbing from the government website here: “On no occasion travel to Mali, at all.”
So did you feel safe?
Well, I did have quite an attentive bodyguard. But I did feel safe in Bamako and in the south.
At either of those festivals, the Ali or the Wassoulou Festival, was there was there any sort of foreign presence? Europeans or Americans?
Well, we’ll have to augment the foreign presence next year.
I plan to go back.
Excellent. Well, we’ll meet there. Inshallah. Great to speak with you.
Yeah, likewise. Take care, man. Bye bye,