The Niger is one of the mightiest rivers in Africa, stretching 2500 miles in a great curve that extends east to west from Guinea to Mali, before turning south at the Great Bend to flow into the country of Niger. It is on the banks of this Great Bend in Mali that a vast network of ancient cities and empires once reigned over West Africa and where today a diverse population of farmers, fishermen, and nomadic cattle herders rely on the rivers resources to survive in the harsh desert climate.
By the banks of the river lies the small desert town of Niafunké, home to both the legendary musician Ali Farka Touré and his protégé, Afel Bocoum, who is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful voices of the region. Together with his band Alkibar, meaning Messenger of the Great River in the Sonrhai language, Bocoum uses the river as an inspiration and guide, creating a sound steeped in tradition that captures the voice of the people and their relationship to the land.
Bocoum worked with Ali Farka Touré and his group ASCO for over thirty years, since the age of 13, during which time he made a fundamental contribution to the distinctive sound that helped put the village of Niafunké on the map and its music in homes throughout the world.
Bocoums haunting vocals and acoustic guitar acted as a natural compliment to the pulsating electric guitar and guttural voice of his tonton (the affectionate word for uncle) and mentor Touré. His collaborations with Touré are most remarkably displayed on the album The Source with songs like Inshana Macina and Dofana, as well as on the European and North American tours that have brought Bocoum out of his mentors shadow and into his own spotlight. This transition was consolidated with the recording of Bocoums first album, Alkibar, in an abandoned agricultural centre on the outskirts of Niafunké in 1997.
In 1978, Afel Bocoum finished his studies at a government agricultural school and began working as an agricultural development worker. This gave him further opportunity to travel the region and see first-hand the progress of development in Mali, a country plagued by a long history of drought, poverty and war that has tested the stamina of its people. Throughout its history, a special emphasis has been laid on cultural diversity in the advancement of the nation, and music has proved a powerful and motivating tool to inspire integration and communication across ethnic boundaries, helping to create a national identity.
Bocoum places questions of diversity at the core of his work, singing in a blend of the different ethnic languages, rhythms and melodies of the region. This comes naturally to him as he is of mixed parenthood with a Sonrhai father and Peulh mother. Born in Niafunké, he grew up speaking both languages, but it wasnt until he began writing music that he sought to advance his skills in Tamaschek the language of the Toureg, as well as Bambara. He explains, sometimes you just find that certain ideas are expressed best in a certain language, and one must also remember that the spoken word is a music in itself. When I can speak to some people with melodies, some with language and some with rhythms, I can reach a wider audience by interchanging them - making different combinations and conveying different messages.
The more he immersed himself in his music, the more Bocoum realized that his skills could be used to greater effect working with the community as a youth mentor and musical director directly involved in community activities. In the countryside in Mali, we dont go to the cinema or read the newspapers; but we all listen to music. Music is the most important means of getting information across. So I feel a strong responsibility to speak the truth when I sing because I know people will heed what I say, remarks Bocoum.
As an established and respected musician and member of the community, he strives to combine philosophical commentary on society today with an active participation in community activities such as the Flamme de la Paix the commemorative ceremony that recreates a pioneer burning of weapons marking the end of the Tuareg rebellion in 1996. By playing at such events, Bocoum hopes to influence others to take their future in their own hands. Africa has spent too long relying on others to solve its problems. It is time that we listen to each other and create our own solutions. He does this eloquently in a style reminiscent of the desert blues sound of Ali Farka Touré, but conveys a stripped down version to reveal the roots of the music. More firmly focused on the acoustic and traditional sounds of the surrounding cultures, he uses a one- stringed fiddle (njarka), a two-stringed guitar (njurkel) and calabash percussion with his acoustic guitar and impressive vocals - that intertwine fluid melodies and circular rhythms, inducing an image of the ebb and flow of the forces of the river and desert that surrounds them. An introspective mood is created, wrapped within social commentary against greed and arranged marriage, as well as encouraging the need to respect your elders. As Bocoum comments, when an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down. People have begun to forget and have become lazy - if we dont realize this today, tomorrow we will be lost.
Released in 1999, Afels debut solo album Alkibar finally gave him the space to reveal his own powerful talents as singer, guitarist, and composer (with his mentors blessing). Being the first album ever recorded entirely on location in Niafunké, its devoted entirely to local musicians. Afels own band, also named Alkibar, accompany him with a beguiling take on Malian blues. As one would expect, most of the songs on the album address the various problems experienced in Malian society. In a country where television, cinema and newspapers are largely unavailable, Afel sees music as the best means of getting a message across, as he delivers these thoughtful and individual songs with his uniquely haunting and melodious voice. Afel and Alkibars European tour in March 2001 saw them showcase the albums material with performances described by The Guardian as mesmeric.
Always keen to broaden his musical horizon, Afel collaborated with Blur front man Damon Albarn on the hugely popular Mali Music album in 2002. The project arose from Albarns involvement with the charity Oxfam, for whom he traveled to Mali to work with local musicians. Also featured is kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté and members of his band, along with musicians such as reggae bassist Junior Dan, which resulted in an album containing a myriad of musical influences yet retaining the warmth and vitality that one would expect from a more conventional African recording. The album ultimately helped expose a whole new audience to African music, for which the project received widespread praise, in addition to this proceeds from the sale of the album have gone to help fund some of Oxfams activities in Mali. The live dates that followed, including an extremely successful show at Londons Barbican, were met with great acclaim. In June 2003 the pair re-united, as Damon made a guest appearance with Afel in front of 65000 people on the main stage at the Roskilde festival in Denmark.
Following the Mali Music project Afel took part in another fascinating collaboration, called Desert Music. Along with his group Alkibar, Afel joined forces with a group of musicians from Rajasthan for a UK tour in May 2002. Unlike Mali Music, this collaboration was one of contrasting and yet shared experiences, exploring the sounds inspired by the desert: the Thar Desert of Rajasthan and the desert that surrounds Afels native Niafunké.
Throughout the summer of 2004 Afel toured with the Desert Blues project, which also featured the enigmatic Tuareg group Tartit and popular Malian singer-songwriter Habib Koité. The tour was conceived as a result of the popularity of the Desert Blues compilation albums, and the interest that they generated in the music and cultures of desert peoples. Afel, Tartit and Koité were chosen to participate as their music reflects the influence of the environment that they come from, with the idea being that these shows would give audiences a taste of the Sahara and neighbouring Sahel regions of Mali.
In 2006 Afel returned to the international stage touring both solo and once again as part of Desert Blues, he also released his new album Niger through the Contre Jour label. Despite his growing acclaim, Bocoum remains a humble and gentle man who modestly redirects the energy of recognition to the importance of the welfare of his people and the inspiration they bring to his music. In the flowing melodies of the river and the pulsating rhythms of a harsh desert wind, there is no doubt that the legacy of Ali Farka Touré is in the right hands.
With a remarkable finesse and a distinguishable talent, Afel Bocoum has proven to be a true messenger of the Great River, and will be sure to carry the future of Malis music into a new era.
By Rachel Bloomberg & Dave McGuire