Global Beat: Vieux Farka Touré Meets Khruangbin

Jeff Tamarkin on November 16, 2022
Global Beat: Vieux Farka Touré Meets Khruangbin

Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré didn’t have to search far and wide for collaborators when he began planning an album of songs written by his renowned father, the late Ali Farka Touré. Vieux had recently attended a Khruangbin concert and was instantly struck by the Texasbred trio’s pancultural mix of Middle Eastern, Asian and other global sounds—as well as their ability to incorporate elements of psychedelia, soul and funk. He quickly sensed that the genre-busting group would have an innate feel for Ali’s work. 

Over the course of his 15-year recording career, Vieux has frequently looked beyond his African roots for inspiration. He cut a pair of highly regarded albums with the Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Raichel in the early 2010s, and during that same period, released the Eric Krasno-produced The Secret, which featured Dave Matthews, Derek Trucks and John Scofield.    

The members of Khruangbin were instantly intrigued by the project’s potential. In addition to releasing three albums of their own, the band—guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson Jr.—have also displayed a fervor for mixing it up with others, most notably Leon Bridges and Trey Anastasio.    

“The premise of the whole project was Ali’s music,” Lee says, calling from a stop on the ongoing Khruangbin tour. “I think maybe why Khruangbin came up for consideration for Vieux was that we tend to listen to music from all around the world and use it in our music. So Vieux’s management must have thought it was a good fit for a band that was already familiar with world music, but was a Western band.”

She then pauses and adds with a laugh, “It’s like a good gateway drug.”

“The idea was born in early 2019,” Vieux says. “I was talking with my manager about the idea of honoring Ali through a collaborative album with an American or European band so we could reinterpret his songs and bring a new life and a new audience to them. I felt like I had reached a point in my career where I was ready to do that, and it was something I thought I could do to pass on his music and wisdom to the next generation.”      

Once Touré and Khruangbin established that they wanted to work together, they faced the difficult task of figuring out what to play. Ali’s song catalog is quite vast, and Khruangbin wasn’t about to pretend they were familiar with all of it.

“Khruangbin winged it,” Lee says. “Vieux had a mixture of songs that were pretty popular and have multiple versions and then some songs that were unreleased. He didn’t tell us what we were recording until day one in the studio. We didn’t even know what the songs were called while we were recording them. They were ‘Song 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,’ until we had to know what the names were.”    

The completed album— simply titled Ali and released on the Dead Oceans label— arrives just months after Vieux’s most recent solo album, Les Racines. It features a cross-section of his father’s compositions, from the personal to the political; the arrangements stray just far enough from the originals to give the reboots their own stamp. A solid, funky rhythm finds its way into all of the tracks via Lee and DJ’s intuitive grooves, while the mix of Speer and Vieux’s guitars applies a hypnotic, sometimes otherworldly swirl to the performances.    

“We struggled to find our place in some of the songs initially,” Lee admits. “We eventually found them. But, because the songs were so full on their own, it was really hard for me to play melodically— which, at this point, is what Laura Lee sounds like. I don’t just play the root; it’s never been my thing. So how do I find a way to put myself in there and not step on what’s already there? And Mark had a much more challenging place because Ali’s guitar is the predominant sound across the whole record.    

“Mark went through days of pain,” she adds with a laugh. “We would go into our respective apartments that we’d rented for that week, and I would basically play a song over and over. And he did the same thing; he just took a lot longer because it was less obvious. There are a couple of songs where he’s just playing keys or organ because he thought that it didn’t serve the song for him to play guitar. But, the most successful parts were where they were both playing guitar. Mark is playing these ethereal, spacious sprinkles over the whole thing. To me, it sounds like Vieux is the earth tones of it and Mark’s the sky. Mark is up in the mix and Vieux is heavier.”

“From the moment I met them, they were so respectful and so friendly,” Vieux says. “It was clear that they had a huge respect for my father’s music, and then, when we got to work together in the studio, it was also clear how important it was to them that they honor that music but also make something new from it.”

Lee cites the song “Diaraby,” which Ali had recorded on Talking Timbuktu, his 1994 collaborative record with Ry Cooder, as an album highlight. “‘Diaraby’ is my favorite place that Mark reached, and I was in the studio with him while he got there,” she says. “That process of watching somebody find it is like watching somebody learn how to ride a bike. It was a beautiful experience. The music is very soulful.”

The weaving together of cultures is apparent throughout Ali, but it’s handled so subtly as to feel absolutely natural, not forced. Throughout the set, the new collaborators also transcend their spoken language differences, meeting at a crossroads where communication happens on its own. 

“That’s something that Khruangbin has always loved,” Lee says. “I listen to music that’s not in English probably the majority of the time, and I like it because it never takes me out. Sometimes you’re in a coffee shop—you’re working or whatever—and as soon as you hear the lyrics, your mind automatically goes there, rather than just listening to the music. But I think you can usually tell what they’re singing about, even if you don’t know the language, because the feeling comes through. How awesome is music that you can be from different parts of the world—and you can have different internal rhythms—yet you can still end up finding the language that suits you both?”