Interviewed in DC on July 29th 2013
This interviewer is indebted to the assistance from Kim, who interpreted from French, as English is one of the lesser of eight languages that Mali native, Vieux Farka Toure has in his arsenal. Although as the world knows, he speaks most eloquently through the guitar. He is in town to show off his skills with an all-star line-up of some of the finest area musicians in local African and world music based bands. It takes place at the Liv Nightclub at U Street and 11th this Wednesday at 8pm. And as you will see, this is an important charitable fund raiser as well. And of course thanks to Mr. Toure for giving me a few minutes after being up nearly a whole day while flying through Europe and crossing the Atlantic to DC.
David Hintz - This is a very special show here Wednesday night at the Liv Nightclub. Although you have been to DC many times, this is not just you and your band, but an all-star type of band, so you could you tell us about it.
Vieux Farka Toure - OK, it is a very special show, not like coming to a club for a show. It is with friends and brothers. We are trying to get an organization started called Amahrec-Sahel .
DH - And this is a charitable organization you are starting?
VFT - Yes, I am starting everything, although Massama (Dogo of DC band Elikeh) is also getting involved as we have known each other quite awhile and in effect we have become brothers. It is not often good to do things alone. This is a humanitarian project.
DH - Is it focused on Mali or broader regions?
VFT - For the moment, we are focused on Mali since that is where I am based and I have seen the problems that have gone on in Mali, that is where we will focus first. Although for example, Massama is from Togo and if there were problems and things to happen in Togo in the future, then they could work to get donations and base some projects in Togo. They will start by taking a little bit for Mali and then everything will eventually be for Africa. The whole goal for it is to be African. And if there are other organizations that have the need for finances and if there is money available, then we will be able to help those organizations. Musicians are more easily able to get funding and use their marketing. I wanted to start off with the fundraiser in DC with all my friends here.
DH - Great, are there any other fundraisers planned?
VFT - There are no planned fundraisers at present, but during my concerts I will ask people for donations. Then if other NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) ask for money, it is available. And right now we are looking for other people to help because we obviously can't do everything by ourselves. And if there are foundations able to help, that would be great. For example, the foundation of Ali Farka Toure will also participate.
DH - Ah ok (Ali Farka Toure is is Vieux's late father who was a world famous guitarist).
VFT - There are two separate foundations, although in time they may be combined together.
DH - How much time are you able to spend in Mali since you tour a lot?
VFT - Not much time.
DH - Do you tour everywhere like Asia, Australia?
VFT - Yes, Australia, Israel, and now I'm just coming from London, Espana, Africa…
DH - Yes, I was curious about Africa. Obviously with your roots and name being so big in Africa, is there an infrastructure there to allow you to tour through a lot of cities?
VFT - Last year, I toured Africa and toured 24 African countries. It is easy now with the infrastructure to travel between countries in Africa, but it is hard to have the concerts. It is more difficult with that, not like here.
DH - Yes, I remember seeing a tape of a Thomas Mapfumo concert which was great with people dancing and having a great time, yet looking like it was in a tiny bingo room.
VFT - Yeah, it is difficult to find a good place.
Washington Post article discussing the upcoming election. Is there optimism with this or is there still a long way to go?
VFT - I am a little bit fearful because there are people with bad intentions who are starting to ruin some things in opposition. It is just a way to create chaos. Malians are not people that really like to cause problems. Maybe a little bit will happen, but after that everything is fine with the Malians themselves. They are saying these are the best elections in a very long time, so we will see what happens after. You never know what is going to happen. I don't want to go to Mali right now. I will stay here for a while and see.
DH - The music of Mali is quite famous, in large part due to your father and yourself, but has music always been a big part of Mali and your father helped bring it to the world? Did we find out what was always there or are more younger people getting into music there as a result?
VFT - Yes, actually the older generation of musicians paved the way for the younger generation. Mali has the most international artists in all of Africa… there are so many to name. It has the most culture and Mali holds on to its culture.
DH - That is the curiosity I had whether it was like an Austin or Nashville or New York… as it has seem to have exploded over the years. But the older generation was important.
VFT - They were the ones that really worked hard to get everyone aware of Malian music. So the next generation finds that it is good and they are just continuing to push the music even further.
DH - Great. Why did you start in percussion rather than guitar?
VFT - Oh… (laughter)
DH - And you did so with formal school.
VFT - I was playing first calabash, congas in 1994 with many friends. But I started to learn guitar in 2001.
DH - (directed toward Elikeh's drummer, Aaron Gibian, who was in the room) Like all drummers, you just had to play guitar (laughter).
Kim - But you (Aaron) stick to drums because you are so good at them and don't need to play another instrument.
DH - And I think bass players may be worse, actually.
Aaron Gibian - The rhythm is so important that it is a great place to start. Frank Zappa started there, too. The Van Halen brothers switched instruments because they felt more comfortable on each others instrument. You just go with what works for you.
DH - Definitely… Now in Malian music, I was at one of your shows and a guy sitting with me was trying to explain the difference between north and west and tribal this and that, so I am curious if you formally studied the regional differences or not?
VFT - Now in Mali it is not really strictly split up into regions as everyone tends to pick up the music from all of the regions. It is all mixed together because you will get a group of musicians and they will all have different ethnicities, so they will bring it all in together. But yes, I did specifically learn the northern style of music first, but then because I played with Toumani Diabate, I learned the music of the south from him. He is the most famous kora player not only in Africa, but in the world.
DH - And you have recently collaborated with an Israeli musician that you met while hanging around an airport as I've heard the story go.
VFT - Yeah.
DH - And is that how you go forward with surprising musical encounters or do you try to plan out specific projects?
VFT - Sometimes it will be that you try playing together and find that it just mixes well and goes together so we'll continue and do something with it. There has been something with Dave Matthews and even with Massama (Elikeh singer and guitarist) because we've collaborated now.
DH - And you are just in from Europe (after some long flights) and you are only playing here.
VFT - Yes, as this is very special here for the fundraising. It is very good here with Massama.
AG - And the political situation in Mali right now is especially of warranting of support for people willing to align themselves with this extremely worthy cause. There been other countries that have had problems with recent coups and recent elections and I was listening to NPR who didn't have results, but they were saying turnout was not especially impressive. But hopefully some sort of coalition of interested governance comes to be rather than the abdication, etc.
DH - And Mali had been a very stable country for many, many years.
Kim - In March it was when the generals and the army ended the coup in the North…[See the NY Times index for more] But the Liv venue Wednesday night will be a great place for this event.
DH - I will certainly be looking forward to the show, so I will see you all there.
And later that night after an evening of hard rock in the Velvet Lounge I caught up with Elikeh's singer Serge Massama Dogo to get his local input regarding Wednesday night's show…
DH - This show looks pretty exciting. It is not just your band members, but people from several different DC area bands along with Vieux Farka Toure.
Massama Dogo - What we did here was that DC is actually a small place to try to promote the show to help a good cause. We worked together for a cause to come up with a line-up that really is the first time something like that has happened in this city. And it shows how people from different bands can work together and hopefully it is something we can do more of.
DH - It is certainly great from a musical perspective as it should be just as much fun for you on stage as it is for the audience, and I am also struck that you and Vieux Farka Toure are focusing on the present Mali situation, but your native Togo has had problems as well in recent years.
MD - Yes.
DH - I think there is a connection there for you, but also for many of us in DC who would want to join in and help these causes.
MD - I know and that is the thing. The people who love African music love the culture as well and are interested in where the music is coming from. With what is happening in Mali is very difficult and with the election, people want to jump in and help the situation. With Togo, it is a different situation, there is no war yet, although there has been crazy stuff happening. It may not be as urgent as Mali right now.
DH - And hopefully Mali's previous stability is something that can be quickly restored. Hopefully the African music fans here will come out and support the show for this cause as there will be some interesting music.
MD - Yes and it will not just be a jam session. There are teams where I put the musicians in teams where with Team One for example you have Michael Shereikis of Chopteeth and you have Will Rast of Funkart and me on percussion (with one other player), so you Team One has people with different bands and there will be a mic open so somebody who feels it can come join in and play. That person will be from the core of musicians we have and not the audience (laughter)
DH - Right!
MD - So it won't be a straight up jam session, but we do want to just go up and have fun. So we want to make sure the music is good. The jam will be on the soloing on the songs.
DH - That sounds logical. So what is new with your band, Elikeh.
MD - We will be playing the Kennedy Center on August the 12th and we will be opening for the Wailers at the Howard Theatre on August 18th and then we have some shows out of town in Baltimore, Asheville, and Raleigh. We have played out a lot this year, but wanted to make sure we started from the roots which is downtown DC and our goal is to move further in the regions to the south. We have played north like Boston, Pittsburgh, New York and now our goal is to go south.
DH - That is exciting (as we discussed the fact that there are two Wailers touring, one family based and other with the original bassist, while this is far from the first time this has happened). One last comment on Vieux Farka Toure… did you first meet at a show I was at four years ago?
MD - Yes, it was at the Rock'n'Roll Hotel where we opened for him.
DH - Right, and you have played with him again at shows I have been at and you have gotten to know him very well. In fact earlier today, he said you were his brother.
MD - I know, he is a really good person. He is not just a great guitarist, but he is a really good person. We just became friends right at the show at the Rock'n'Roll Hotel. We regularly call each other, send emails, and every time he comes through on tour, we will connect on much more than music, like two friends talking about everything. We are like brothers. So when he came up with this idea here, I knew that there would be plenty of people here that would like the music and want to help Mali. He was like ok, so we went ahead.
DH - Well, I will see you there this Wednesday at the Liv Nightclub.