Interview: Sidi Touré

Sidi Toure
Sidi Toure
Sidi Toure

Years ago, in the town of Gao, Mali, a budding singer-songwriter was making tuners for his first guitar out of motorcycle nuts. Now, just like the simple instrument that got him started, Sidi Touré has developed a compelling acoustic style that reflects his humble beginnings. Often called “Songhai blues” in the United States, Touré’s style is rooted in African folklore, with blue notes and subtle call-and-response dynamics pointing to the beginnings of the Mississippi blues.

On his latest album, Sahel Folk, Touré strips his acoustic sound down to the bones, singing in his native Songhai on a simple acoustic-electric guitar (he’s been seen playing Washburn and Ibanez models, as well as an “XP” guitar based on a bowl-back Ovation design). While his first CD, Hoga, was recorded with a band in 1996, his latest album is a series of duets, recorded in only two takes at his sister’s house. This time, despite the rawness of the recording, Sahel Folk sets Touré’s seemingly effortless fingerpicking front and center. He plucks each string fluently with a delicate precision, rolling with the rhythm of traditional Malian instruments in each duet.

This past fall, Touré traveled to North America for the first time, where he played concerts in Canada and the United States. “I’ve wanted to play there for a long time, not only to play, but also to meet people and musicians,” he says. “Every good musician dreams of playing in the US—it’s a country where people don’t understand what you sing but they feel you through your music.”

Before he began his concert tour, the guitarist talked to Acoustic Guitar about his songwriting process and the Malian musical tradition that has had a deep influence on his playing style.

On Sahel Folk, you took a very simple, straightforward approach to recording. Why did you choose to limit each song to two takes?
TOURÉ We recorded two takes to keep the spontaneity. We’re used to playing like that, it’s the way we feel the music—we look for chords, we talk about the accompaniment, and we play. It’s a kind of improvisation; songs are never really the same. I’ve played with the musicians on Sahel Folk for a long time. On the first day we met around a glass of tea, we listened to songs, we sang them, and on the following day we recorded.
You’ve said in the past that your family didn’t want you to pursue a career as a musician and that your brother would break the guitars you made.

When did you acquire your first real guitar, and what was the learning process like?
TOURÉ There was a music competition in our district—my band won. As a sign of appreciation, a man gave us a five-string guitar. But there were no strings or tuning keys, so we used metallic cables and motorbike nuts. Of course, we needed a solid pair of pliers to tune the guitar. There was no music theory, no music school, nothing. The first song I learned was “Ancien Combatant” by [Malian folk musician] Idrissa Soumaoro. We saw this man in Gao, alone with his acoustic guitar, playing and singing, and this helped improve my style.

What kind of guitar do you play, and who are some of your influences?

TOURÉ I play an acoustic-electric XP guitar. Unfortunately, I don’t know the brand. If I had to mention only one influence, I would say the late Ibrahim Hamma Dicko, one of the greatest musicians of Mali. He taught me all I know. Because none of his children became singers, he left me his repertoire, which I still play.

Are there any Western guitarists who have influenced your style?

TOURÉ When I was young, I didn’t know Western music, it was Makossa [an African rhythmic style] and Zairian music. Now I have some tapes in my cupboard—John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, but it’s quite recent.

The musical traditions of Mali are very diverse. Which ones have the biggest influence on your music? In the United States, we refer to your music as “Songhai blues”—would you say that’s a correct term?

TOURÉ “Songhai blues” is more of a Western term. I draw my music from the history of Gao’s music, from Songhai folklore. In my mind, this term is used because of the link that exists between blues from Mississippi and Africa.

What is your songwriting process like? Do your compositions begin with a guitar part or a vocal?

TOURÉ Most of the time, I take my guitar, then I look for a good melody. When you’ve got a good melody, everything is easier. I also have a handheld recorder I carry with me. Inspiration can come at any moment. Recently I was quite angry to see that, despite a lot of good things coming from Africa, peace is still a distant idea. So I took my guitar, I looked for a melody, and I composed a song.

See the article in Acoustic Guitar magazine.