Every year, Opera North in Leeds hosts a very well curated selection of artists and this week was no different, with an enchanting and magical performance by Vieux Farka Touré. Having been a massive fan of Ali Farka Touré, Vieux’s late father, and seeing Vieux perform at the 2010 Fifa World Cup Opening Ceremony in South Africa, he has been on top of my list of musicians that I have wanted to see for a while. Naturally, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to see him live.
Arriving at the Howard Assembly Room, I was surprised to see that the concert was a seated affair, given the lively and energetic music that everyone was about to witness. However, when the first spectators started arriving all became clear, and it perspired that I, for once, was one of the younger fans in attendance. Being part of a series of musical entertainment events, many of the audience were season ticket holders who enjoyed all of the Opera North concerts on offer. For many people, who dressed to impress, the Opera North series is as much a social event as a musical one. However, it was also clear that many fans had come especially to see the Malian star perform.
Unlike most concerts these days, there was no warm up act. The show started promptly at 19.45 and finished an hour and a half later as billed. Enough time to enjoy a chat with the man himself after the show, a social drink with the other attendees before heading back home.
The current tour largely showcases Vieux’s latest studio album Samba, which brings together Latin sounds with Malian rock and reggae, steeped in traditional West African soul music. From the very first song on, Farka Touré and his band made me fall in love with the light and playful phrasing of the music and made me want to pack my bags, hop on a plane, and explore the Western Sahara.
There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the energy and soul emitting from Farka Touré’s songs that immediately puts you in a good mood. When you close your eyes, the soulfulness of the music transports you to a magical place far far away and makes you forget about everything that was on your mind. This is why we go to concerts really, isn’t it?
A beautiful escape from everything that lets you be in the moment and share those 90 minutes with the band and the people sitting next to you.
Not only did the band create a musical wonder-world that it was easy to get lost in, but the three are master of their instruments in their own rights. Vieux Farka Touré’s spectacular wizardry on the guitar, with a technique like Mark Knopfler, has been highlighted by many, giving him the nickname ‘Hendrix of the Sahara’. I can see where that comparison comes from, with his constant push against the boundaries of Malian and African music and the effortless speed and lightness with which he runs up and down the fretboard.
However, I think this comparison is not fair. Farka Touré is a very special and unique musician who doesn’t take his cues from others but constantly reinvents his sound to push his art further and further. Having said that, if you never had the chance to see Jimi Hendrix or Steve Ray Vaughn, do yourself a favour and make sure to catch Vieux Farka Touré for a jaw-dropping almost arrogant use of his guitar to express himself.
The evening’s entertainment at the Howard Assembly Room saw a melange of musical styles, rhythms, and pace with super smooth and cool songs from many of Farka Touré’s studio albums, while maintaining a musical narrative and consistently unique sound. My highlights of the evening were the rendition of Fafa, from Touré’s Fondo album, and the counter-tempo of Ali from The Secret album.
The latin rhythm of Kale Magni got the crowd going and people could not sit still anymore, making their way to the aisles to dance along, to the delight of the band. The handful of children present at the show, had long been up and dancing but now it was the adult’s turn too.
Mixing upbeat songs with slow and soulful blues vibes took the audience on a musical rollercoaster ride. Although, I could not understand the lyrics to the songs, as my Songhay is a little rusty, I could feel the pain and raw emotion in every note played and every vocal sung during the slower and bluesier sections of the show.
The evening ended with a long rendition of Ouaga from the latest album, Samba, during which the audience was encouraged to sing along to the Songhay chorus of the song, which was not a trivial task. After a while people managed to get the lyrics right and the energy generated within the concert hall was spectacular. Everyone capable, even the most critical of season ticket holders, were up on their feet by the end of the show, singing along and dancing away.
It was a spectacular evening with a wonderful atmosphere and enchanting songs that transported you to shores and lands far away and left you with a warm feeling of having witness something very special. Farka Touré and his band’s tour continues and they will play at Glastonbury in a couple of weeks before heading across the big pond for the US leg of their world tour. I highly recommend catching their infectiously good vibes sound – just bring your dancing shoes!
Review & Photography by Gunnar Mallon. Vieux Farka Touré at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 15th June 2017.