Given the cultural and political war that has besieged his homeland, Mali, over the past 18 months, Vieux Farka Touré's Mon Pays is a novelty.
It's not a protest album. It's not even a postcard from the front. It is instead a remembrance of Mali's cultural splendor, one seemingly intended as much for the outside world as for the thousands displaced by the fighting between the country's native Tuaregs and invading Islamic extremists.
There is a narrative depth to the album that we, as Americans, probably can't appreciate. None of the songs on Mon Pays are sung in English, so that excludes us from stories of nationality (Kele Magni), generational faith (Diack So) and the current homeland tragedies (Yer Gando). But the music conveys the mood through guitar lines that dance about with the grace and lightness of snowflakes and a sensibility in its vocal makeup that is largely contemplative.
There is perhaps an unintended irony in that the two songs with English titles — Future and Peace — are both instrumentals. But these are the best points of entry for new ears. Both are duets between guitar and the beautiful, harp-like kora, and they pack a powerful sense of history. The guitarist is the son of the renowned Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, and the kora player is Sidiki Diabaté, son of the great Toumani Diabaté. The fathers were a famed duo, responsible for a pair of Grammy-winning collaborations (In the Heart of the Moon and Ali and Toumani). The songs their sons present on Mon Pays (complemented by the kora-dominated Doni Doni) unfold like ballets, with delicate but pronounced lyricism and a sense of musical give-and-take that is both delicate and dramatic.
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The most telling collaboration closes the album. On Ay Bakoy, Touré reaffirms a recent alliance with Israeli pianist Idan Raichel. The two toured as the Touré-Raichel Collective behind the wonderful 2012 global jam album The Tel Aviv Session. Ay Bakoy, however, bears a temperament more in line with the meditative and slightly elegiac feel of the duets with Diabaté.
In the end, there are two things about the current unrest in Mali that need to be considered when taking in any aspect of Mon Pays. The first is that the invading fundamentalists seek to outlaw music in one of the most musical fertile climates of the world. The second is that Touré is himself Muslim, but he is far removed from the militants and, as he has termed them, "hypocrites," seeking to transform his country and his religion for their own purposes.
It's no wonder, then, that the English translation of Mon Pays is "my country." But one listen to this intensely serene music will tell you that.