Touré always has a new groove

Boston Globe, January 20, 2006

He’s been called an African Cat Stevens, which seems odd. For there’s little of the moody singer-songwriter in Daby Toure, the rising star from Mauritania who rocked Boston’s Bastille Day outdoor concert last July with a danceable, sweat-drenched set, and returns for a performance at the Somerville Theatre tonight.

It’s true that Toure’s first solo album, “Diam,” released in 2004 on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, found him in a familiar West African troubadour mode. The lyrics are mellow, even gentle. The themes heroes and ancestors, the human condition are timeless ones that trace back to griots and mystics.

Though enjoyable, “Diam” did not stray much outside the conventional confines of “world music,” where artists are expected to be authentic emissaries of their culture, sometimes at the cost of innovation.

On the phone from Paris, Toure observes that “Diam” made him seem more traditional than he really is.

“You have to understand that [traditional themes] are the only thing people see,” he says. “I’m going to be more careful about that next time. But the songs are still authentically from me, so it’s all right this time.”

His Boston set last year was already something different, with a substantial injection of reggae grooves that are nowhere to be found on the album. But even that sound, he says, is already obsolete.

“I’m in a state of constant evolution,” he says. “It’s not that I’m trying to do something in particular; it’s really that the music evolves on its own. The more you play, the more your music evolves.”

He’s bringing an entirely new group tonight. The sound has changed again, he says, divulging only that there’s a little more rock in it. Musical innovation runs in Toure’s family. Two uncles founded Toure Kunda, an iconic Senegalese band of the 1980s with a heavy Cuban influence; his father joined the group for a time as well. But Toure, now 33, experienced his own musical coming-of-age in the cosmopolitan setting of Paris, where influences include rock, hip-hop, and electronica.

“Daby’s music comes from the influence of his father’s band, the [Senegalese] genre called mbalax, and the fact that he has spent his adult life embedded in the Paris global music scene,” says Brad Powell, an early fan and the president of Somerville-based Calabash Music, which distributes global music online.

Toure’s first band, a duo with a cousin, which they called Toure Toure, played in Paris, and released an album, “Ladde.” But he soon decided to forge ahead on his own. Like many international artists, Toure feels pulled in different directions by his plural identities. He considers himself Mauritanian: “It’s where I go on vacation, where my friends are,” he says. But he dodges the label of African artist. Aside from one festival gig in Mauritania, he’s never performed in Africa. It’s simply not a priority, he says.

“When you’re building something, you’re better off building it where you have the means to do so. And in Africa there simply isn’t the means. I know, I have friends who are trying to make music there. But I’m not on that trip. I’m on some other trip.”

In part, Toure’s “trip” is that of a striver who knows how easy it is to fail, especially as an artist outside the pop mainstream. (In France, he comments, there’s far more interest in the contestants on “Star Academy,” the French “American Idol.”)

“It’s easy to slip and fall, and you don’t get a second chance,” he says. “I know guys who’ve been playing for years, and they’re still in the same place. While these other white artists have well- managed careers. They get to appear on TV and play songs that are 20 years old.”

Toure is a free spirit, a playful individualist who wants to keep his independence. A telling measure is that some of Toure’s songs are in a language only he understands.

“I sing a lot in my own imaginary language” he says. “It’s made from all different sounds that I’ve picked up here and there. I find that fun. It gives me complete freedom.”

He continues to sing in his native Soninke and other African languages, and says he will soon try lyrics in English and French. But his imaginary language solves at least one problem.

Until now Toure, like other African artists, has sung songs that only the few native language speakers in the audience understand.

Now, he has a language that nobody understands.

Or perhaps it’s one that we all can relate to.

“It’s really about the emotion the music produces,” he says. “What’s at the base of the music isn’t texts. It’s the emotion of the sound, and whether it touches you or not.”