Honoring his roots, Touré blazes his own trail

Boston Globe, August 20, 2011

Four years ago a conversation with Vieux Farka Toure was a loose affair held in a kitchen in Queens while the Malian singer-guitarist and his bandmates cooked lunch amid boxes of CDs. It was Toure’s first US tour; he had a name – he is the son of the great “desert blues” maestro Ali Farka Toure – and a debut album, but he was otherwise mostly unknown.

A lot has changed since 2007.

Vieux, as he’s known, has put out three more albums in quick succession: “Fondo” in 2009, a live CD last year, and this year’s “The Secret,” rounding up top guest talent from Mali and the US jazz and jam-band scenes. He’s been remixed by global-minded producers such as Karsh Kale and Eccodek. And he has emerged as a next-generation African star, playing the kickoff concert for the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa.

Touring has become much more frenetic, Vieux concedes on the phone from Bamako, Mali, where he still spends as much time as he can. “Back then we were taking it easy, staying around the house. Now it’s all a rush,” he says. “But we still keep up the family atmosphere.”

Family is a core value for Vieux, who plays Brighton Music Hall on Wednesday. Being the son of Ali Farka Toure gives him royal pedigree among guitarists and world-music fans. And since the elder Toure’s death in 2006, Vieux has not only slung on his father’s iconic black guitar, but is also now helping take care of his mother and extended family in Niafunke, the tiny town on the Niger River that Ali Farka made famous.

But Vieux’s career has as much to do with his chosen family, a trans-Atlantic network of musicians and friends that has put him on a novel music and business path. It blends two generations of Malian virtuosos with a Brooklyn-based crew of young music entrepreneurs and producers who in turn have connected him into the broader US scene.

This explains how “The Secret” got produced by Eric Krasno, cofounder of the band Soulive. And also how it features Dave Matthews, who sings back and forth with Vieux on the bilingual “All the Same”; Derek Trucks, whose slide guitar illuminates a beautiful track called “Aigna”; and John Scofield, whose guitar interplay with Vieux on “Gido” is a fascinating encounter of voice and technique.

“It’s my favorite record so far,” Vieux says. “It’s something different and finely wrought. I wanted to make something that is not like what everyone else is making. So that people hear it and say, `Who is that?’ “

Given that mission, the key was to avoid the trap of undirected cross-cultural fusion that loses all identity. To that end, Krasno shelved plans for a much longer list of guests.

“I didn’t want to compromise his sound,” Krasno says. “I wanted it to be his statement, with interesting collaborations, but not take him out of his realm.”

The process of making the album followed that principle. Vieux recorded rough tracks in Bamako, with top players of traditional instruments. “I do all my takes in Mali,” he says. “If I recorded in New York, it would be too clear, too square.”

But the album was completed in Brooklyn, with some songs receiving small changes while others got whole new studio sessions. This allowed Krasno to deploy a range of vintage audio equipment to finely shape the sound.

The encounters on “The Secret” were new for Vieux and his guests: he was not previously familiar with their music, nor they with his. “But the way they played, I could tell immediately it would work well with my music, with Malian music,” Vieux says.

In the end, “The Secret” – whose title track weaves in a line from Ali Farka’s last studio session, blurring completely the line between father and son – finds Vieux working with his global crew but addressing the family that bore him.

“Ali” is the first song he has written that directly pays tribute to his father, he says. And “Aigna” is for his mother, reassuring her that contrary to family rumor when he started his career, Vieux’s world travels did not mean he was drinking, doing drugs, or otherwise misbehaving.

The moral of the song rings like a mission statement.

“I said, don’t listen to what people are saying,” Vieux says. “In fact it’s the opposite. The experience of traveling instructs you.”