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Afel Bocoum: Emerging from Ali's Shadow

The Messenger from the Desert


02/06/2006 - 

Afel Bocoum has just made a welcome comeback on the world music scene seven years after his debut album Alkibar. Niger is an extraordinary opus of desert blues featuring Touareg, Peul and Songhai rhythms that reflect the rich cultural diversity of northern Mali. In this interview, the Malian bluesman talks to RFI Musique about his music, his inspiration, his values and the void left by the death of his uncle, Ali Farka Touré, in March this year.

RFI Musique: Your second album, Niger, revolves around the sound of the njurkel and the njarka, traditional instruments found in northern Mali and northern Niger…
Afel Bocoum: That's right. The njarka, which is a single-stringed violin, and the njurkel, a double-stringed guitar, form the basis of my music. I tend to highlight my njarka, my violin and my calabash because I feel the guitar isn't an instrument that belongs to me. It's not an instrument I could ever master better than those who invented it and who perfected their guitar-playing skills over the centuries. I want to make my life out of what I've got and that means traditional instruments. Having said that, however, the guitar is really useful – it's a unit of measure and reference that allows us to tune our instruments in the first place. But I play the guitar as a simple musician, whereas when I play the njurkel or the njarka I'm automatically inspired. When I sit down to compose it's with the njarka or the violin. The sounds of the instruments vibrate in my deepest core and I have an instinctive understanding of them.

There's an image of a giant loud speaker on the cover of your debut album Alkibar. And on your new album you make it clear that music is the most effective means of communication in Mali…
It was a tourist who sent me that loud speaker, you know, and I used it for years and years. Back in those days, around 1968/1970, I was really committed to raising public awareness. We used to go round performing in villages and local neighbourhoods – we were all crazy about music! Someone would play violin, someone would be on the calabash, someone would have left his animals, someone else would have left his work in the fields and we'd all get together in the moonlight and sing. That's how we got a taste for music. You have to realise, only 30% of the population in Mali can read and write… So whenever a problem came up and people needed to get a message across, they'd come to us and ask us to raise public awareness on the issue. Even at the height of the Touareg rebellion, we weren't afraid to go round the nomad camps and sing for peace. That was with the group Alkibar which means "messengers." That's the reason I ended up using that as a title for my album.      

Do you feel as if you're continuing this mission on your new album Niger?
Yes, I do. My aim is not just to make an album, but to reach out and touch the maximum number of people possible so that we're all on the same wavelength. My songs are about Mali, Africa and the state of the world in general. And one of the things that gives me the most pleasure in life is when I play at home or abroad and someone comes up and asks me, "What exactly did you mean in such and such a song?"

You spent a long time working with your uncle Ali Farka Touré, both singing with him and writing material for him. What made him realise he should help you follow a musical path in life?
I was the one who forced the issue. When I was a kid I'd follow him round everywhere he played, setting up the microphones or fetching coal and brewing up his tea. I'd do anything so that people around him would let me stay near him. And he finally came to accept me himself. When I was around ten or twelve I used to go off to the back of beyond with him, just so I could hear him play, and in the end I was finally accepted into the group.

Ali Farka, the opening track on your new album, is dedicated to your late uncle. But it's a song tinged with anxiety. What are you so anxious about?        
I'm anxious about the fact that people see me as a potential heir to my uncle, but Ali never even knew why he did what he did. God gave him a gift and it came out because it was stronger than him. He had to do it. I'd love to do what my uncle did – and even more, come to that! – but I'll never be in a position to do so. The only thing I can inherit from him is his philosophy. To my knowledge, none of Ali's children, no Malian, could ever take his place. It's not so much his work or his music, it was something else about him. And the simple fact is, you can go round playing his songs, but you'll never have his charisma! I'm obviously really flattered when people compare me to him. But at the same time, I have to get out of his shadow. People have to give me a bit of space beside him and stop thinking that one day or other I'm going to turn into a little Ali… Ali had too many other qualities besides his music and that's what made him so popular. As I said, I'm flattered by the comparison, but it's a heavy legacy in some ways, too.

Niger has been released on the Belgian label Contre-jour. What motivated you to leave your previous label, World Circuit, and sign with them? 
Being with Contre-jour is a lot more simple than life was at World Circuit where I was basically a little fish in a big pond. There were all the major stars with huge album sales… What happened was Habib Koité happened to tell me about his label one day when things at World Circuit weren't going so well. I hadn't been out on the road and toured for two years and after Alkibar I'd actually recorded demos for over thirty new songs but nothing had come of it… I probably reached a point where I felt like seeing what I could do with a bit of proper backing. But one thing I've come to realise over the years is that as long as the river Niger exists I'll always be inspired. And back where I come from the music never dies!

Afel Bocoum Niger (Contre-jour/Harmonia Mundi) 2006

Eglantine  Chabasseur

Translation : Julie  Street