The Desert and the River

Rob Curran
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When I arrive at Vieux Farka Touré’s house, he is rehearsing with his band in a colonnaded courtyard. It’s a kind of residential amphitheater, about thirty yards square, with nothing in it but a couple of mango trees, a handful of vehicles, and the band. The musicians and extended family who live with Vieux are milling around in the sunshine, giving the place the feel of a tropical Graceland or the South of France villa where the Stones recorded Exile on Main St. Vieux does not miss a beat as he gestures for me to sit next to him, nor does he miss a beat when he’s signaling to his uniformed security guard to answer the phone or to brew a round of green tea.

Vieux’s face drifts from his trademark boyish smile to pursed concentration as he exchanges looks with his new band member, a player of the mandolin-like n’goni, who is sitting on the other side of him. Picking the strings horizontally with his right index finger as if coaxing the sounds out of them, Vieux begins to play the traditional “Diarabi,” a cri de coeur from a young man to his lover’s disapproving parents.

The other band members join in and music fills the courtyard. It’s at once raw and polished, a refined jamming, Vieux’s special blend of traditional Malian and American roots music known as the desert blues. Some tunes pulsate with such raucous joy that the statue of Vieux Farka Touré’s father, Ali—the man who made “Diarabi” famous—could be forgiven for tapping a golden foot from his perch at a traffic circle at the end of the street.

“Where I am from,” Vieux says, “there’s the desert and there’s the river, and everything we do has the desert and the river in it.”

When Vieux starts to sing, it’s easy to imagine the river. On the surface, his voice is deep and laconic, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness, an ancient ululation. Here in Bamako, Mali, the Niger River is the central feature, like the Mississippi River in Memphis, if the Mississippi were still clean enough to have vibrant grassy shores and children swimming off its docks.

Then, in the middle of the song, Vieux stops and gives a subtle signal. Everything stops. Vieux makes his band tick with the precision of his smart watch. He’s a bandleader in the maximal, demanding style of Prince or of James Brown—the two-hundred-gigs-a-year, holler-till-your-last-vocal-cord-expires kind of bandleader. He doesn’t let his band or himself off the hook.

“He pushes me,” his backing singer, Mohamed Dicko, told me later. “I need someone to push me. I have his support. When he’s in Bamako he asks me to play with him. Gives me visibility.”

But Vieux is also dealing with concerns that stretch far behind those of a standard bandleader. When the jihadists came to his native region of Timbuktu, and threatened the lives of many relatives and musicians—in Dicko’s case, literally—Vieux opened his home, and his home studio, to them.

Malian traditional music is a vital element of world heritage. It’s a direct conduit to a forgotten classical school of learning that rivals those of Alexandria, Egypt, and Athens, Greece. Many musicologists believe Malian traditional music is the source water of the Delta blues, which is one reason Ali and Vieux Farka Touré and their peers have mixed the two so seamlessly into the desert blues. Timbuktu and the semidesert north of the country, where the Sahara dunes meet the Sahel scrubland, are the hubs of this music.

Currently, the ancient city is under a blockade by jihadist groups, who have plagued the region for more than a decade. Right now, nothing comes into or out of Timbuktu, nothing but the Niger River, and those lucky enough to escape. Some of those people, like Dicko, are bound to end up at Vieux’s house, living or recording there or both. The French army, which has kept the jihadists at bay since 2012, recently pulled out of Mali. The United Nations peacekeeping forces are pulling out. Even international aid organizations are likely to scale down operations. But Vieux Farka Touré will not be moved.

“A musician with his stature could live anywhere he wanted to, but he chooses to stay, in a less comfortable situation than he’d have elsewhere, and he chooses to do it for Mali,” said Andy Jordan, the Denton, Texas, musician who introduced me to Vieux’s music.

Vieux tours about half the year, but he always comes back to Bamako. He is currently recording an album for Dicko’s band in his home studio. When Dicko can’t get gigs around Bamako, Vieux sends money home to the man’s family. There are rules, though—rules that echo the discipline once required to work with Prince.

“I don’t drink or smoke. Nobody in my band drinks or smokes. I have to have them all clean,” said Vieux.

In the courtyard that day, Dicko gets no charity. Vieux gives him some stern notes on the performance of the high-tempo “Adou.”

“You don’t sing with your mouth,” Vieux tells Dicko, pulling at his own cheeks to demonstrate. “You sing from your gut.”

Later, Vieux tells me: “They think they have to be like Michael Jackson. I say, ‘Just be yourself. It’s your voice. Don’t try to do what other people are doing.’”

I was first brought to Vieux’s house by Phil Paoletta, the imperturbable American hotelier, West African music aficionado, blogger, Bamako TikTok star, lapsed sheep farmer, Timbuktu calligraphy preservationist, and motorbike tour guide. Phil was first brought to Vieux’s house by a man wearing animal skins, who carried a sword everywhere “for security reasons.” It was their tendency to say yes to things that Phil and Vieux bonded over (that, and the fact that Phil’s wife is part of the Dogon ethnic group, whose members have traditionally been “joking cousins” with Vieux’s Songhai people, making it obligatory for them to tease one another).

Vieux can never say no to a guest, or to having a guest star on his records. Part of this may be strategic: collaboration made his father, Ali, world-famous, giving him three Grammy-winning albums. Mostly, however, Vieux just loves having people around, and above all, people with whom he can jam.

When Vieux met the Israeli experimental pianist Idan Raichel at a German airport, it was inevitable they would end up collaborating. They performed at a show in Tel Aviv together, and were persuaded by Raichel’s manager to continue the jam session in the studio. The result was one of the most intriguing Jewish-Muslim artistic collaborations of the modern era. The Touré-Raichel Collective produced two ambient masterpieces—elegant, unforced, soothing pieces of work.

Vieux’s ultimate collaborator, of course, remains his late father. In all Vieux’s musical projects, he pays homage to his legacy. Vieux could easily be slowed down by the weight of his pedigree. Not even Hamlet had to circle a golden statue of his father every time he drove home. Ali Farka Touré is a giant of Malian culture. Paul Chandler, an American who has dedicated his life to the preservation of traditional Malian music, realized the unique power Ali possessed when he promoted events in parts of the country that were heavily affected by jihadist violence.

“While we were traveling, even in 2014, 2015, when things were still a little raw between communities and it was hard to get everyone to come together for an event, the one thing we noticed was if we did a night in honor of Ali Farka Touré, no matter what, people would always come together around him,” said Chandler.

Most artists would find such legacies oppressive. Yet Vieux and Ali are perhaps the most successful musical dynasty since the Strauss family dominated the Viennese 1-2-3s for a century. After Ali’s death, in 2006, Vieux chose to jam with the man’s ghost rather than wrestle with it. Vieux plays a brand of Ali Farka Touré’s desert blues, but he has pushed further into the mesmeric side of the music, working with reverb and a series of collaborators to get funky. In doing so, Vieux has reinvented his father’s work as a kind of space rock. The boldest experiment in this vein was Ali, the 2022 album with Houston indie band Khruangbin.

“This is a thing I wanted to do for a long time, to play Ali’s music at another level, to bring Ali’s music to young people,” said Vieux.

Keeping Ali’s music alive is a challenge now that northern Mali is entering the second decade of a cultural and religious war that’s set to worsen with the departure of UN forces. The jihadists would like nothing more than to destroy the musical and artistic traditions Ali represents. Nevertheless, Vieux continues tending the flame, touring and supporting Malian musicians. He just makes sure his bodyguard is never far away.


Vieux Farka Touré was born in 1981 in Niafunké, a riverside town about a hundred miles south along the Niger River from Timbuktu, the cultural center of Mali, and five hundred miles northeast of Bamako, the capital and largest city. During Vieux’s childhood, Niafunké would become synonymous with his father, becoming a kind of African version of Willie Nelson’s musical fiefdom in Austin, Texas. Vieux grew up in a time of promise for Mali and West Africa, in contrast to the West Africa that his father was born into. Ali was the only surviving son of ten that his mother bore. In recognition of this perseverance, Ali was given the nickname “Farka,” the Songhai word for “donkey.” In Mali, donkeys still carry some of the heaviest burdens.

Ali’s rise to fame was not instantaneous. He competed in national singing contests and composed songs in several different languages, steadily building a reputation around Mali.

Vieux was Ali’s second son, a special status in the Tourés’ Songhai culture, which earned him the name “Samba” in the Songhai language.

Vieux sought collaboration with his father from babyhood. He often sat in on his father’s practice sessions, internalizing the mixture of traditional and rock music that Ali was inventing. After he was sent to bed, Vieux would sneak back to the rehearsal room, his mother said. He was witnessing the development of Ali into someone who would become universally renowned as one of the greatest electric guitarists ever.

With his father often on tour, Vieux spent a lot of time with Ali’s brother in Nioro, a town closer to Bamako. His uncle was a driver for a cattle company. Another relative, a grand-uncle whom Vieux called his grandfather, would sing an old song dedicated to another “Samba.” Vieux remembers dancing while Grand-père sang.

In his spare time, Vieux listened to American radio and cassettes, geeking out on Jimi Hendrix—with whom he has been compared—John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, and Phil Collins, among other artists. He taught himself the guitar, playing along to cassettes of his father. Vieux was not the only great Malian musician to learn this way. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a founding member of the legendary Tuareg band Tinariwen, learned to play with a guitar he made out of an oil can and a bicycle brake line, strumming along to Ali Farka Touré’s music, according to the band’s website.

In 1992, Ali met American slide guitarist Ry Cooder while both were gigging around London, and they discovered they were mutual fans. In the space of five years, Cooder would feature on three of the great fusion records of all time, working with Indian slide guitarist V. M. Bhatt, with Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, and with Ali on Talking Timbuktu. That 1994 album won Ali the first of three Grammy Awards, global recognition, and in turn made him a local and national hero.

Vieux had started to learn the calabash—a hemisphere hewn from a gourd and played with slight drumsticks—so he could accompany his father. When it came time for Vieux to graduate from secondary school, his father confronted him. Ali did not want Vieux to become a musician.

If Vieux was hurt by his father’s refusal to take him into the family business, those feelings are now gone. He looks back on that talk as the kind of goals-oriented career advice so many young graduates receive from their parents.

The reason Ali discouraged his son was “because there are so many problems with musicians. People were coming from Europe to take the music,” said Vieux. “They told them: We’re going to produce a record. They kept the music, and they kept all the money.”

In the book Mali Blues: Traveling to an African Beat, about another giant of the local scene, Boubacar “Kar Kar” Traoré, author Lieve Joris captures how alien the music industry felt to the traditional men of the Sahel. Kar Kar told the author that he was flown to the United States by a promoter during his first effort to break into the Western charts. Years later, he ran into the man in Paris and the man ignored him. Kar Kar was flabbergasted that this American businessman, who had acted like his best friend the last time they met, could walk past him without so much as a greeting.

Ali felt just as ambivalent about his musical career, sometimes even introducing himself as a farmer or a mechanic, according to legend. At one time, he felt his soul was wounded by his spiritual journeys on the guitar. In another unexpected move for a folk superstar, Ali would become mayor of Niafunké. He had celebrated the dusty old town so lovingly in his songs that the community couldn’t help but love him back.

Ali recommended that his son enter the army. With that kind of career, his salary would be steady, work plentiful, and advancement likely. In the Songhai culture, it’s important to carry on the work of your forefathers, and Vieux’s grandfather—after whom he was named—had been a soldier. Ali sent Vieux to stay with his dear friend Captain Ousmane Maiga, who would help Vieux prepare for life as an army officer. A year later, Vieux went to Maiga and said he was not taking to the military life. He wanted to play music.

Finally, his father relented. Instead of entering the army, Vieux Farka Touré was admitted to the Institut National des Arts in Bamako, where he mastered the calabash and began experimenting with guitar. Rather than directly guiding his son’s artistic education, Ali arranged for Vieux to play with his friend Toumani Diabaté, a man whose family has reputedly worked as griots for seventy generations, and who is renowned as the greatest living player of the kora harp, an elaborate twenty-one-stringed instrument. Musicians in West Africa are usually born into the trade, coming from clans dubbed griots by the French and known as jelis in Malian languages. Like the wandering Celtic harpists known as bards, griots were songsmiths for hire. Like bards, they often attached themselves to royal families and composed songs of praise for them. Today, they retain ceremonial roles at weddings, baptisms, and other events. They also keep the secrets of the production and playing of instruments like the n’goni, the marimba-like balafon, and the kora.

Vieux began playing the calabash with his father’s band. In 2004, his father brought him to a festival in Privas, France. His dad asked him to warm up the crowd of ten thousand by playing a few solo tunes on a guitar that Ali had gifted to him. Vieux remembers the immense pressure ahead of that performance.

But he was hooked. By this time, he had developed a distinctive guitar technique, which some critics say draws on the conventions of the kora. It is characterized by rapid, polyrhythmic plucking with the thumb and index finger. He began working on his debut album. In the midst of recording, however, Ali was diagnosed with bone cancer. Before his father died, Vieux took Ali on a vacation to the banks of Lake Débo. There, Ali taught him the song “Tabara.” Back in Bamako, weak from the cancer, Ali insisted on going into the studio to play with Vieux on “Tabara” and on two other songs for his son’s debut. They were the last recordings Ali ever made. Vieux soon returned the favor, working on his father’s last musical project, singing and drumming on the Grammy-winning, posthumous album Ali and Toumani. Later, Vieux would produce an album of unreleased Ali tunes, Voyageur.

In the aughts, there was a swell of interest in Malian music. Capitalizing on this, Mohamed Aly “Manny” Ansar, a promoter of Tinariwen, started the Festival au Désert, initially held in the band’s home region of Kidal. Later, the festival moved closer to the more accessible city of Timbuktu. Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, came to play the festival. Blur singer Damon Albarn raved about it in the British music press. Bono attended as a guest. The festival also drew hundreds of young music fans from the West. The Westerners mixed with local Tuareg people. Vieux was one of the headliners, alongside other Malian stars, including female artist Oumou Sangaré, whose traditional-sounding songs often have a feminist twist.

After his Festival au Désert performances, Vieux’s profile continued to grow. He played alongside the Dave Matthews Band—another of his myriad collaborators—as well as Shakira, Tinariwen, and others at the opening ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He had officially risen to international prominence. His second album, Fondo, reached number five on the Billboard World Album charts. He was making more money than he ever had. But back home, there was a crisis brewing.

Timbuktu was quickly becoming a stronghold for an offshoot of al-Qaeda. The semiarid Sahel lands were out of the reach of local military and law enforcement. Jihadists moved in and took advantage of this to launch attacks and kidnapping raids in Mali and Algeria, then disappear to hideouts. The Festival au Désert had continued despite this. But in 2011, the jihadists snatched three young tourists from the center of Timbuktu and killed a fourth. Few overseas visitors came for what would prove to be the last edition of the festival a couple of months later.


The distinctive mud-brick city of Timbuktu grew up at the crossroads of Tuareg trade routes around 1100. Soon it became the center of the Malian empire. Around this period, an oral constitution known as the Manden Charter became one of the first expressions of civil rights and laws in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta. The Djinguereber Mosque and other buildings made from dried mud established Timbuktu as a center of learning that, in the fourteenth century, was home to twenty-five thousand students.

The empire of Mali arguably reached its peak during the age of Musa, the ninth mansa, or emperor, who reigned from 1312 to 1337. It was a bountiful era for the gold and salt mines around Timbuktu. When Musa set off on his hajj to Mecca, he traversed Africa with an entourage of about sixty thousand people, including twelve thousand slaves, five hundred of whom reputedly carried several pounds of gold. Musa’s reputation as the wealthiest man ever to have lived was formed upon his arrival in Cairo, then one of the largest cities in the world. Legend has it that Musa went on such a spending spree that he caused a bout of inflation and a spike in the price of gold that lasted a generation.

Musa’s reign was characterized by Sufism, a form of Islam that is often communicated through music, poetry, and art. A caste of musicians flourished, and many of the instruments still played in the Sahel were developed during this era. Over the centuries, Timbuktu scholars produced one of the world’s most extensive collections of manuscripts, many of them celebrated for their calligraphy. The jelis, meanwhile, recorded history and customs in songs that were passed down through generations. Periodically, music and manuscript production was interrupted or threatened by more conservative Islamic rulers, who decried any form of artistic representation.

The push and pull between creative expression and religious repression continues to this day. When the jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012, reactionary extremism took hold once again. A former musician named Iyad Ag Ghaly and his jihadist group, called Ansar Dine, imposed sharia law on the region. And true to the tradition of frustrated artists who gain political power, Ghaly attacked art as degenerate.

Fortunately, many of the calligraphic treasures of Timbuktu had already been protected. Joshua Hammer’s book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu describes how, beginning around 2000, librarian Abdel Kader Haidara sailed up and down the Niger, knocking on doors and negotiating personally with village chiefs and private collectors to collate the treasures that were hidden under floorboards and stacked in sheds. Haidara initially housed the collection in museums and libraries around Timbuktu, but spirited them away to Bamako, in a bold escape, when Ghaly took control of the historic city.

The violence has also had a direct effect on Malian music, said Paul Chandler, the music preservationist. When the jihadists occupy towns, music is outlawed, and these laws are enforced brutally. Many local musicians have to go underground.

“They grow beards,” Chandler said, “go through all the motions. They would still maybe rehearse but very much in private.”

Chandler’s nonprofit, Instruments 4 Africa, has spent several years trying to jump-start the music scene by organizing small festivals in areas that have suffered under the jihadist occupation. Along with a team of Malian colleagues, he travels around the north, making sure musicians have the instruments they need to play. But the jihadists are ever-present.

Along with Chandler, Vieux is engaged in a campaign to protect Malian music. He travels to Niafunké and other areas with uncertain security to play at the events organized by Chandler. At the home studio he built during the pandemic and named for his father, Vieux records young traditional musicians. And at the Festival Ali Farka Touré—an annual event intended to replicate the international appeal of the Festival au Désert in the relative safety of the Bamako region—he showcases these acts. The only time I heard him raise his voice and grow excited during our interviews was when he discussed the perilous future of Malian traditional music. He sounded like Volodymyr Zelensky, talking about the survival of a culture he loved, a culture under siege.

Whenever possible, Vieux attempts to give work to musicians who have fled the north. In 2015, Mohamed Dicko started a band in his home of Mopti, another area the jihadists have tried to keep under their thumb. When the band went on tour, Dicko would hide his guitar under luggage in the van, in case they were stopped at improvised rebel roadblocks. Eventually, Dicko said, somebody denounced him because he played at a campaign event for Soumaïla Cissé, a less radical politician who was eventually kidnapped. This time, Dicko’s van was singled out at a checkpoint. Dicko credits his survival to the fact that the man who searched the van was a fellow Tamasheq speaker. He promptly fled the region, moving to Bamako.

Unfortunately, the challenges that Malian musicians face are growing worse. In 2020, Assimi Goïta staged the first of a series of coups that have swept through French-speaking Africa. Goïta’s unelected “transition” government demanded that the French military, which had kept the jihadists at bay in the north of the country, evacuate. Eventually, the UN peacekeeping forces were asked to leave too. In the last four years, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Niger, and Gabon have all fallen into the hands of military leaders. All the coups appear to have a similar motivation: to drive out the French, whom the juntas often deride as clinging to the vestiges of their empire at the expense of Africans. Most observers say there’s some truth to this. For example, France issues the West African CFA franc and the Central African CFA franc, ensuring stability in the local currencies by pegging them to the euro, in return for economic sway. The problem is that Goïta and others have invited Russia in to fill the vacuum left by the French and international forces. The mercenaries of Russia’s state-funded Wagner Group army are treating Malian civilians far more brutally than the French or UN ever did. 

People living in the semidesert regions of Mali are now caught in an unenviable position. Jihadists might come to a village in the desert and pressure the locals to become more observant. To avoid persecution, the local men might grow out their beards. When the Wagner Group shows up, they treat anyone with a beard as a jihadist supporter. In 2023 alone, Russian mercenaries have burned down entire villages, killing dozens or possibly hundreds of civilians, including women and children, according to a report from The Economist magazine.

Vieux is trying to save his father’s music, but the political forces at work are vast. And their effects on the cultural life of the region are already being felt. These days, Vieux has trouble finding people to play more unusual instruments, like the monochord or even the more common bolon, a traditional battle harp.

“Mali is a country for music,” said Vieux. “Music is how people learn life, learn history, learn everything. Now the music is coming down.”


On one of my last days at the Sleeping Camel, the bar and hotel co-owned by Phil Paoletta, the staff built a stage from overturned milk crates and plywood, in front of the pool. The Camel has no signs on the front of the building anymore, for security reasons. (Bamako has mostly been spared the violence elsewhere in the country, but two deadly attacks in 2015 targeting foreign nationals have led people to take precautions.) The hotel rooms surround a beer garden that is overhung by mango trees, where, as Phil’s bird-spotting son Andre will tell you, gray western plantain-eaters often land. On the walls are murals of a shades-wearing camel on a scooter; of a gray western plantain-eater; and of Ali Farka Touré.

“Here is like my house,” said Vieux.

The Camel is a home away from home for many wanderers. This is where the people who bring food and medicine to the blockaded city of Timbuktu come to relax. Edouard, a tireless Swiss road warrior, had heard of the Camel from thousands of miles away. When he finally arrived, Phil let him pitch a tent on the patio where Andre and his friends take jujitsu lessons.

Edouard was going to stay only a couple of nights, until he heard about the Vieux Farka Touré gig. While he waited, Edouard sent his goddaughter a postcard, one of more than one hundred he’d dispatched to her during his years of traveling.

Vieux knows everyone at the Camel, and everyone knows him. And yet when he arrives, Vieux cannot relax until the first chords ring out. Onstage, Vieux has a very calm demeanor. But offstage, I came to learn, Vieux is often more harried. After one gig, I tried to interview him and he put up his hand.

“The pressure,” he said.

Collaboration is a compulsion for Vieux. The only person he could make time for as he got the stage ready was Juan Carlos Araujo. Araujo, who worked for the UN military mission in Mali, plays Latin jazz. The two men took out their diaries to coordinate the jam session.

“Mali is always like this,” Vieux said. “We share our music. It’s like an exchange. A musical exchange, a cultural exchange.”

As ever, Vieux was well dressed. One of the first times I met him, he was wearing a purple shirt and a bolero tie with an unusual square clasp featuring a horse and a cross. Over the shirt, he wore a pale blue suit with a checked pattern so exquisite, I confess that I googled secondhand ones afterward. On this night, he was wearing a silver diadem in the shape of the African continent, hanging over a crisp pinstriped shirt.

After he took the stage, Vieux lost little time in including guitarist Bady Ag Agaly, who is married to the photographer for this story, Annie Risemberg. Bady himself is another refugee from the wild north, and another Malian musician whose career has been helped by his appearance on a Vieux record.

As the band began to play, I recognized some of the songs they had rehearsed during my first meeting with Vieux. Dicko was back in the groove, singing from his gut, showing the crowd how to let the music take you in its sway like a river. The energy built—that ineffable kinetic power that passes from the players to the dancers and back to the players.

The seats were set up, and a small dance floor. Most people just wigged out near the bar. Strangers danced with strangers. The joy of Vieux’s voice was still cut with a kind of sadness. It burrowed its way into the heart. By the end of the show, the entire audience was transported.

For the final song, Vieux played “Na Maïmouna Poussaniamba,” which is akin to an African polka. He called out, “Hey!” The guitar and n’goni riffs grew steadily faster with each loop, like fairground rides just after takeoff. The crowd whooped, charged the dance floor, and almost charged the pool, pumping their fists in the air. The song grew faster. Still, the crowd whooped and danced more freely. You could see the legacy of Ali, and of the generations before him, pulsing through the room. Vieux was playing for his people, but more than that he was side by side with his people. I thought about what he’d once told me about Ali. He was driving me back to the Camel from his house. Around us, Bamako was all go: the motorbikes streaming past one another at full speed through every crossroads. 

“My father used to be a friend for everybody,” he said. “Whether they’re kids, women, old people. He was on the same level as everybody.”

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