Sidi Touré had to fight hard to do what he loves most
The songs of Malian guitarist Sidi Touré are original, but the culture of the Songhai people runs deep within them. “I come from Gao, on the Niger [River],” Touré says, reached on tour in Quebec City. “All my music is from there.”
Gao was once the capital of the Songhai Empire, the most powerful in West Africa in the 15th century. The Tourés were nobles, and although Sidi’s own family was far from affluent, its name carried responsibilities in a caste-based society. No Touré should earn his livelihood as a musician or singer.
As a boy (he was born in 1959), Sidi Touré fought hard to do what he loved most. “I made guitars out of two of the slates that we used to write on in school,” recalls Touré, speaking in French. “You put a plank between them for the neck, with the brake cables from motorbikes for strings. Every time I made one, my elder brother would break it when he saw it. Every time.”
At school Touré was often punished for singing, but he remained undeterred, and started getting together with other music-smitten youngsters for jam sessions. Eventually, his talent became so evident that he was made lead singer in the school band and given a real guitar by an admirer.
“Nobody taught me to play,” Touré says. “I am from the school of le bon Dieu [God], and everything I have, I owe le bon Dieu. One of my teachers saw my talent and took me to join the regional orchestra of Gao, the Songhai Stars.”
With the group, he toured Mali and other countries of the vast western Sahel region, between the Sahara Desert and the equatorial forests. Since the mid ’80s, however, Touré—who fingerpicks his acoustic guitar—has forged a solo career, and he’s currently accompanied by a second guitarist, a calabash-gourd percussionist, and a player of the soukou (a single-string violin).
Touré blends the rhythmically subtle and many-layered music of the Songhai with diverse western inspirations to produce a unique “African crossroads” sound.
Koïma, his latest album, takes its name from Gao’s most famous landmark, a massive sand dune just outside town. In French, it’s known as la dune rose—the pink dune—for the colour it turns at sunrise and sunset. But in the Songhai language, Koïma has another meaning, one with deep resonance for Touré.
“Long ago—this is not a legend, it’s reality—all the great sorcerers of the world used to meet on la dune rose from 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning until dawn, when each went back to his camp until tomorrow or the next day. In Songhai, koï is ‘go’, and ma means ‘to hear’. Go to hear what? The sounds that the sorcerers make.”
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