Born of the legendary Ali Farka Toure, Vieux Farka Toure became a legend in his own right when he started to play music. Vieux was initially a drummer / calabash player at Mali’s Institut National des Arts, but secretly began playing the guitar in 2001. Becoming a pioneer in Mali by bringing together western sounds and traditional Malian music, Vieux is now one of the most famous musicians in the world. He says he admires Ethiopian music and has performed with artists like Mulatu Astatke. Closing his pan African tour in Ethiopia last Tuesday, Vieux sat down with Capital’s Eskedar Kifle to talk about the tour, his music career, his upcoming album and what he thinks of his musical future. Excerpts
Capital: Is this your first time in Ethiopia?
Vieux Farka Toure: You could say that, I have only been to the airport while transiting to go somewhere else. I did not get the chance to see the country.
Capital: How do you find Ethiopia?
Vieux: Everybody knows Ethiopia as it hosts the Headquarters of the African Union. In Mali, we love music from Ethiopia. Ethiopian music and Malian music have similarities.
Capital: Tell us about your tour.
Vieux: The tour started over two months ago in November. It is a national tour in the countries where the Alliance Française institutes are located; we did concerts in Johannesburg and Durban (South Africa), Kigali (Rwanda) and we finished the tour here in Addis Ababa.
Capital: How did the tour go in the other countries you have performed?
Vieux: It was good but it was not without problems. Different countries have different ways of doing things. It was very interesting because we got to experience different things. I have performed all over Europe and the U.S but I have not been able to do a tour in Africa until now, and I am happy that now I have.
Capital: Do you still live in Mali? Have you lived anywhere else?
Vieux: Yes I still live in Mali and I have never lived anywhere else; I enjoy living there, it is home. That’s where I always want to stay.
Capital: You have been compared to Jimi Hendrix; what do you say about that?
Vieux: I have heard that many times and I don’t know how they compare the two of us; I have never really listened to Jimi Hendrix’s music. I listen to people like BB King and other famous jazz artists. Jimi was a really good artist and I do like how he plays but it is not exactly the kind of music I am into.
Capital: Your father Ali Farka Toure is a legendary guitar player, but he never really wanted you to become a musician. Why was that?
Vieux: He was a very famous artist, one of the biggest in Africa. It is true that in the beginning he didn’t encourage me to get into music, but that was not because he didn’t like music. My father is a musician and he understood the hardship that comes with being a musician. Music agents take you everywhere, they make you sing and sometimes they don’t give you your money. A lot of people take advantage of you and my father had a lot of negative experiences. He wanted me to have a normal job and a stable pay cheque, a normal life. That is why he didn’t want me to become a musician. Also my father didn’t attend school so he wanted me to at least finish school before I started to entertain the idea of becoming a musician. After I finished school, he became warmer to the idea of me playing music.
Capital: What is the most important thing you have learned from your father?
Vieux: It is difficult for me to say precisely. I guess I would say I learned music from him. He took me with him when he travelled to perform. He gave me everything that later turned me into the way I am now, as a musician but also as a person. He taught me to be simple and humble in whatever I do. He taught me not to take myself too seriously and be respectful towards everyone. He gave me life lessons that have really helped me throughout my career and my personal life.
Capital: Do people always compare you to your father? How do you feel about that?
Vieux: I get that very often; people compare the two of us. I don’t have a problem with that because I know he is much more accomplished than me, so it is actually really flattering to be compared to him. The music we play is very different; I always try to create something new.
Capital: When you started experimenting and mixing western sounds with traditional Malian music, how did people react in your country?
Vieux: In the beginning there was resistance; people didn’t really approve of it; they wanted me to stick to the traditional Malian sounds like my father did. Then they started to get used to it and they started to like it. Most of the musicians in Mali play similar music, they keep to a traditional style, but I believe it is also important to be able to do something different. That is what keeps your music interesting. Now, people recognize my music, they tell me they like it. There will always be critics. If you do good, they will have a problem with it and if you do bad they will have a problem with it, you can’t satisfy everyone. You have to be able to do what you think is good and hope that other people will like it.
Capital: Mali has lately been on the international headlines because of the unrest in the country. What is your reflection on that?
Vieux: What has been happening in Mali is very sad. It has been going on for a while but nobody was speaking about it. These rebels that are causing the problems are not Malians, they come from outside countries such as Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia. I think things are starting to settle down now; hopefully everything will be okay and go back to normal. I can’t speak confidently of what will happen but it is my hope that everything will go back to the way it was and peace will come.
Capital: Going back to your music, are you working on anything new?
Vieux: Next week I will be in California to continue working on an album, I don’t know when it will be finished or when it will be released. I love collaborating with people, and what I usually do is make one album where I collaborate with different artists and then I do a solo album. The one that we are working on is a solo album. The next collaboration album will be for Africa. I will be featuring different African artists.
Capital: You have millions of fans around the world, who are you a fan of?
Vieux: I like listing to all kinds of music, I love all music. Today I was listening to Mohamud Ahmed’s songs. Where ever I go I buy lots of music CD’s. I have performed with Mulatu Astatke and I know him well. In Mali we love Ethiopian people and artists, but you don’t see Ethiopian artists going to Mali and performing or vice versa. Mali and Ethiopia have a lot of similarities. I am sitting here in Addis Ababa now and I still feel like I am in Mali.
We love Ethiopians in Mali; we say the most beautiful women are in Ethiopia.
Capital: When you are not writing music, performing or in the studio, what do you enjoy doing?
Vieux: If I am not producing music, I am with my family. I have two children, a boy and a girl. We like to go on trips and spend time together. Music is not the only thing I do, I also cultivate rice. I actually have a rice field on 60 hectares of land I have a very normal life, I am like everybody else. I do not mix my music with my personal life. Some musicians take their family with them when they tour or when they perform in different countries. I don’t do that. I might be on the road for two or three months away from my family. If I am away that long, I make sure that I take time off from work for at least a month to spend time with my family. No music, no interviews and no journalists.
Capital: You have two children, what do you think they are going to be when they grow up?
Vieux: I want them to have a normal life. I do not want them to become involved with music. When you are an artist you do not have a normal life. I want them to have a regular desk job in a regular office, but absolutely no music.
Capital: But what if they say ‘no’ and still pursue music? After all they are their father’s children.
Vieux: That is going to be a problem! I understand now why my father wanted me to become something else. As a musician you are always out there, you are either on a plane, in a car or on a boat on your way to some event. Half the time you don’t know what you are doing or where you are going, everything is so fast. I even ask myself why in the world I am doing this. Saying this, I am not suggesting it is all bad, there are a lot of good things. As a musician you make people happy, you bring smiles on their faces and for a brief moment you give them a good time. For my children though, I wish them to be something else, as life as a musician seems to go by too fast.
Capital: If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would have become?
Vieux: I think I would have become a driver. I can see from your facial expression that you didn’t expect that, but I really love driving! I have some cars back home and I also have a driver, but the driver is always sitting on the passenger seat because I am always driving. He always asks me ‘why do you pay me then!?” From my birth town to where I currently reside is a 700 km drive but I just love driving there. I have gotten in some accidents because I like speeding when I drive, but I don’t think I will ever stop, I just have to be a little bit more careful. If you need a driver let me know.
Capital: I will hold you to that.
Vieux: No problem, I would love too!
Capital: Do you think you will ever stop making music?
Vieux: I don’t know, I can’t speak for the future. For now though, I would say no. I will keep playing, keep bringing people a good time making them happy. Maybe when I am a little bit older I will start taking it a bit easier, but for now I will keep on playing.