Good Friday at the Barbican in central London and a smiling Malian guitarist in a brown fedora hat slips effortlessly into a cool, rolling electric-blues groove. Driven by a solid rhythm section and emitting customary relaxed, confident charm, he shifts between hypnotic circular riffs and sparkling solo runs, casting a spell over the audience in a set that culminates in a mesmerising version of the classic Singya.
Sound familiar? This, of course, is not dear departed Ali Farka Touré we're talking about - who himself graced this very stage on his final appearance in the UK less than 18 months previously - but his 26 year-old son Vieux, whose début UK appearance evokes memories of his father’s mastery of the guitar and understated on-stage poise. Although not quite matching the lyrical, expressive flourishes of Ali, there’s enough spark to back up the feeling created by Vieux’s recent eponymous first album that here’s an artist starting to build an accomplished body of work from the foundations laid by his father.
If it seems a little unfair to make the comparison between illustrious father and unproven son, it’s worth bearing in mind just how closely Vieux has stuck to the footprints left by Ali on his initial career steps, from the two songs that feature Touré père on an album that uses his desert blues style as a template for its sound, to the (perhaps rather brave) decision to include a number of Ali’s songs in the live set. Not that Vieux himself shows any sign of being overly concerned about any notions of torches being passed or expectations set too highly, and if there’s a palpable sense of relief from those around him at the warmth of the reception in the Barbican, it's matched only by Vieux's philosophical pre-gig acceptance of how he would be received when I met him the previous evening: "People will always ask, is he as good as is father? But Ali is Ali, and I am Vieux and I do what I do. Hopefully people will like me for that."
It’s difficult to talk to Vieux about his music without constantly returning to the subject of his father, as his conversation is peppered with trademark Farka Touré proverbs and warm references to Ali, both by his first name and as ‘father’. But before we get to Ali’s influence, we must address the question at the forefront of everybody’s mind (well, mine anyway); why is he called ‘Vieux’, the French for 'old'? "I'm named after my grandfather, Boureima and it's quite common in Mali for people who are named after their grandfather to also take the nickname 'Vieux'."
"I was born in Niafunké", he continues, "and I grew up with my uncle, who was a lorry driver, in Youarou near Mopti. Ali was a star by then and spending a lot of time abroad, but the decision for me to grow up with my uncle was more down to family structure than anything else because I am one of twelve children. I returned to Niafunké to finish my education in about 1994, when I was 11 or 12 years old, and I started to play around with music around that time, mostly calabash and other percussion instruments. I always liked music, even as a child, and dreamed of being a great guitarist. It was a deep desire, not just Ali's influence."
However Vieux's father, perhaps mindful of his own years spent as a struggling musician, did not match that desire and was determined to send his son down a different path. Vieux: "In 1999 I was sent to Kati to work on a farm with a family friend. My father wanted me to work there for a year, and then I was supposed to go into military service, like my grandfather before me. I was supposed to become an officer just like him, but I refused to do it, because I don't like the army."
Instead, with the support of his landlord in Kati, Vieux registered himself for the entry test for the conservatoire in the Institut National des Arts in Bamako, and having passed the exams started studying music there. What was Ali's reaction to this act of youthful defiance? "At first he was quite angry. He didn't talk to me for a while and refused to give me money towards my education. But he soon came round when he realised what the exams meant to me, and of course he could relate to a desire to learn about music. It was there that I started to play the guitar and listen to jazz, rap, rock, reggae and a lot of Ali's music as well as the academic, classical music we were studying, which to tell the truth I wasn't that interested in! In fact, my teachers outside of the course were as important as those inside, people like my cousin Afel [Bocoum] and Mamadou Kelly, who played with Ali."
These modern influences have found their way into the Vieux's approach to songwriting, in the form of songs such as the reggae-influenced Ana ("in praise of my little sister who looks after me when I am in Niafunké") and the rocking Courage, songs balanced on the album by two remarkably assured instrumental duets with kora ace Toumani Diabaté, which are as intricate and seductive as those on Toumani and Farka Touré senior’s Grammy-garnering In the Heart of the Moon, and which reflect the central rôle taken by Toumani in Vieux’s development.
"Whilst I was studying, I played in various bands, including Toumani’s Symmetric Orchestra. I’ve always hung out with Toumani, because he has been a family friend for years. It was Toumani who persuaded my father that I could make a go at music, and when Ali decided that he could no longer fight my desire to be a musician, he said that Toumani was the very best person he could trust me to for my musical education. Toumani has been a great help to me. I can't play the kora, but he has shown me a lot of his techniques, and because his kora has twenty-one strings and my guitar six, this has helped me develop the playing of double chords through trying to replicate what the kora does. I know I won't be able to do that exactly, but it helps give me a certain amount of rapidity in my finger-work."
So the circle is completed, then? Your father imitated the Malian lute - the ngoni - on his guitar, you're imitating the kora as best as possible..."...and the kora imitated the ngoni in the first place! Voila!"
Vieux turned professional in 2004, performing and touring in Africa with his father, and appearing as an uncredited calabash player and backing vocalist on Ali’s Savane album. "It was an extraordinary education, and led me to understand how much Ali worked to get where he did; he worked and worked and worked, then worked some more, always honing his craft. I want to do that and if possible, to be even better than him." Were there higher expectations of you than the other musicians? "Yes, but that expectation comes as much from me as him or anyone else. I want to achieve all that he did in music, and more."
Vieux’s album was recorded in the same legendary Bogolan Studios in Bamako as Savane, with Canadian producer Eric Herman, another precocious young talent who doubles as bass player in the band.
"Eric approached me to see if I wanted to make an album, but I said I don't know enough about making albums. So he asked Ali and everybody around Ali said the same thing! It was Toumani who encouraged me to do it, and who organised everything, and negotiated the contract."
The array of styles on the album is underlined by the variety of singers employed (Issa Sory Bamba and Seckou Touré in addition to Vieux and Ali) and languages in which the songs are written (Bambara, Fulani and Sonrai). "Sometimes this is because I'm writing a song with a particular rhythm, so I sing in that rhythm's language. Other times it depends which language has the prettier words for what I am trying to say. I use different singers because I figure that the public doesn't like hearing my voice all the time. One of my father's proverbs was 'honey is not sweet in only one mouth' - in other words, if you have something good, it's better to share it."
At the heart of the album are two breathtaking and characteristically disparate songs - the sprightlier of the two Toumani duets, Touré de Niafunké, and the exhilarating seven-minute centre-piece Diallo, which features the Tourés sparring bluesy guitar licks over sinuous calabash and ngoni support.
"Diallo is Ali's song", Vieux explains, "even though I wrote it. He put his signature on it. He's singing on it and the force of his guitar playing is just amazing. Touré de Niafunké could be about him, but it's actually a traditional Manding tune dedicated to Samory Touré, the last king of the Manding Empire."
I suggest to Vieux that the self-penned songs on the album exhibit a remarkably mature approach to subject matter for one so young, with tradition and morality playing a central thematic rôle.
"This is because I am ‘vieux’, an ancient! I carry the ancient lore with me. I don't think people need to know what I think of a particular woman or how I'm feeling today. They want to know which path you should take in life, the choices you must make, what is right, what responsibilities and duties we have. That's what is interesting to me, and I believe that's what people want."
Those concerns extend to contemporary issues such as the prevalence of malaria throughout Mali, and 10% of the proceeds from the sales of Vieux's CD are donated to Bée Sago, an organisation dedicated to fighting the disease.
"Malaria is rife in the area I live in the North of Mali, and has become almost a way of life. People will come down with a sudden illness, phone up to say 'I can't come to dinner tonight, I have la crise de palu', and the next thing you know, they have died. This is something I'm very concerned about, and it’s nice to be able to help in some way through money from CD sales and merchandise. They've just shipped a whole new load of insecticide-treated mosquito nets to Niafunké as a result of my American tour. There's a proverb that says 'when the wind blows, everybody grabs their own hat' - in other words, I look after my own area [known as the Circle of Timbuktu] first."
That hat remains firmly in Vieux’s grip when it comes to his country’s cotton industry. At the Barbican, the band tried out new stage clothes designed by Malian fashion prodigy Awa Meïté and manufactured using Mali's largest export.
"The cotton industry in Mali is very important, but a lot of the clothes trade has been lost to China where production is cheaper. We wear these clothes as a gesture against globalisation."
So, that’s the future health and prosperity of Mali sorted. What next for the Vieux Farka Touré career?
"We're going to tour the album, do some festivals, and I have projects coming up in America including work on a film soundtrack with Ry Cooder and a track on a U2 covers album. Then later in the year we will be in the studio to record the second album. It is already written, and we’ve got one more track I recorded with Ali. But this next album will be even more Vieux Farka Touré than the first one."
So, maybe next time we meet there'll be less about Ali, although I can't help feeling that his presence will never be too far away - from that brown hat, through the homespun proverbs, to the dextrous desert blues guitar and lyrics that carry a timeless philosophical resonance. I doubt that Vieux Farka Touré would have it any other way.
Thanks to Deborah Cohen for help and translation.