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Toure recorded Savane in the Malian capital of Bamako, as part of a three-disc project dubbed the Hotel Mande Sessions, after the studio in which the albums were cut. Savane is the last, perhaps most eloquent, installment. In concept and execution, the sessions recall the magical combination of spontaneity and virtuosity that marked the debut releases from the Buena Vista Social Club. Toure offers reverberating, incantatory vocals to accompany his lean, hypnotically repetitive guitar lines.
Savane, the great African guitarist and bluesman Ali Farka Touré's final solo studio album, was recorded in his native Mali toward the end of his life, when the artist knew his days were numbered. He spent his last years in his home village of Niafunké, concentrating on farming and family matters, jamming with local musicians of an evening. This impassioned, roots-drenched, mostly acoustic valedictory finds the Maestro's stalking rhythms and high-noon-at-the-crossroads, dusty desert-to-delta vocals in no less than life-summing form. "Soya" (track 5) seems to stand still in a million directions, while "Hanana Soko" (track 9) features a searing njarka fiddle spinning delirious circles around its throaty accompanying percussion. Pee Wee Ellis (sax) and Little George Sueref (harmonica) each manage to make strong impressions while adhering to the groove at hand. Afel Boucoum, a talented younger musician who has been mentioned as Touré's most likely successor (as if such a thing were possible!), graces "Njarou," the last tune. The other players are also at the top of their game, as fluttering ngoni (a West African spike lute) riffs weave in and out and airy female vocals float like a breeze off the river Niger. There are reports that Touré senior sat in on his son's upcoming album and scads of archival material will undoubtedly materialize. But his unsentimental, voluptuously masculine, spirit-guided magic is captured at its best, for all time, in this magnificent farewell. --Christina Roden
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Although we usually think of `fusion' as a mix between something traditional and something Western, one could argue that Ali was permanently engaged in the twin processes of fusing and distillation most of his life -- although his attention rarely wandered far from West Africa.
"Savane" was a work in progress for several years, but it was mainly recorded at the now legendary Hotel Mande sessions in Bamako, which saw the recording of his sensational collaboration with Toumani Diabate "In the Heart of the Moon" as well as Toumani's own "Symmetric Orchestra sessions", which has just been released.
Every note of Ali's guitar and every sung word on "Savane" could come from no other artist. And yet, this is an album unlike any of previous albums.
There is an unusually international ensemble of musicians including JB horn man Pee Wee Ellis (who has been on most World Circuit albums of late) and Fain S. Dueñas of Radio Tarifa plus ngoni musicians Bassekou Kouyate and Mama Sissoko and Dasy Saré.
Now let's be under no illusions, each piece is bent to the will of Ali Farka Touré but under his distinctive canopy all kinds of interesting and surprising things are going on.
The title song has a ska-like backbeat for the distinctive guitars to spring off and the opening track "Ewly" features bold bluesy guitar offset by harmonica making the blues connection even stronger.
Famously, Ali Farka Touré always maintained he was not influenced by American blues musicians, he was just playing his traditional music. Attempts by musicologists to untangle this tale of origins have mostly come unstuck. One could see this album as a way of stating the external influences in his music or even an attempt to reach out but I think both interpretations are wrong and completely out of character.
Carefully, meticulously and imaginatively Ali reclaims the entire African diaspora music for the people of Africa and in doing so he plants his flag on the entire 20th Century music catalogue.
It would be, in short, an enterprise of lunatic megalomania except that it works and can therefore be described as nothing less than genius.
Perhaps its fitting that this last release is a masterpiece. Singing in Peul (Fulani), Sonrai (Songhai) and Zarma (or Djerma, another Songhai language), Ali Farka Toure skillfully blends Sahel tradition with broader foreign influences, all while accompanied by ngoni, calabash and other percussion. Toure is joined on this album not only by a number of non-African blues artists, but also his own protege Afel Bocoum. The songs are all captivating and powerful, from the soulful title track 'Savane,' to 'Machengoidi,' to the delightful 'Penda Yora.' As I mentioned, there are a couple more traditional songs on here, like the spirit dances 'Banga' and 'Beto,' as well as the circumcision song 'Hanana'. The final song, 'N'jarou,' is a dedication to the Fulani hero Boubou Ardo Gallo, a contemporary and rival of Cheikhou Amadou. The liner notes provide background and translation for those not familiar with West African languages.
But the music really speaks for itself. As I said before, this is actually part of a series of recordings made at the Hotel Mande; the other two CDs are 'In the Heart of the Moon,' a collaboration between Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, and Diabate's 'Boulevard de l'Independance,' featuring musicians from across the Sahel region of West Africa. Both are available from Amazon and well worth checking out in their own right, though going into very different traditions. And 'Savane' itself remains a fitting goodbye from the late master of Africa's desert blues...