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Malian Musician Ali Farka Toure Dies

Malian legend Ali Farka Toure died yesterday at his home in Mali’s capital city of Bamako, the country’s Culture Ministry said. Farka was in his late 60s and had been battling bone cancer.

Toure was a respected musician worldwide, a master of a traditional Malian string instrument called the gurke who garnered two Grammy wins for his playing: one in 1995 for his collaboration with Ry Cooder on Talking Timbuktu and his second this year, in the traditional world music album category for In the Heart of the Moon, recorded with fellow Malian musician Toumani Diabate.

Born Ali Ibrahim Toure near Timbuktu, Mali, Toure was his parents 10th child, but the first to survive childhood, earning him the nickname “Farka,” or “donkey” for his stubbornness. The exact date of his birth is not known, but he was born in 1939, making him 66 or 67.

Although Toure was not born into the traditional griot class of musicians and storytellers, he taught himself how to play the single-stringed guitar, the gurke, and the n’jarka, a single-stringed fiddle. After hearing Guinean musician Keita Fodeba later in life, he learned how to play the six-stringed guitar.

Toure spent most of his life in the remote town of Niafunke, a 20-hour drive across the desert from the capital. Throughout his life, he worked as a chauffer, taxi driver, mechanic, riverboat pilot and sound engineer before settling on earning a living as a farmer.

When Mali declared its independence from France in 1960, Toure became part of a state-sponsored musical group, Troupe 117, and in the late ’60s, he began listening to Western blues music, including John Lee Hooker, Otis Redding and Ray Charles. But while he listened to blues music, he didn’t take on their subject matter. His songs tended to be about love, life and nature, and he sang his songs in nine different African languages.

In the 1980s, Toure began recording for French labels and performing around Europe. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s that he came to the attention of Western audiences. He reached the U.S. market in 1989 with his self-titled album and followed that up three years later with The Source, recorded with Cooder and Taj Mahal.

In recent years, Toure grew reluctant to travel and would often take long breaks to work on his farm in between recording and touring. In response to his reluctance to travel, he began recording in a mobile studio in Mali, but continued to perform in France and Africa until last year. His American label, Nonesuch, said Toure had just completed material for a solo album.

Toure is survived by three wives, 11 children and many grandchildren.

Originally Published