By Tom Cheyney

ALI_AND_TOUMANI.jpgIt's been four years since cancer took Ali Farka Touré, but the gentleman farmer, Niger River bluesman, and former mayor of Niafunké has left us with one last sonic memento. Ali and Toumani finds the guitarist teaming up again with countryman and kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté (with whom Ali won a Grammy for In The Heart of the Moon) and a few special guests, including Ali's son Vieux and the late Cuban bassist Cachaito Lopez. (In a sad irony, these were the Buena Vista Social Club sideman's last recording sessions as well.) The album's 11 cuts, recorded over three days in June 2005 at a London studio, manage to be both spontaneous and contemplative, a timeless slice of pan-Malian musicology riven with a laidback acoustic intensity reminiscent of the best back-porch jam sessions (albeit a very well-recorded one).

Although Ali hailed from up Timbuktu way, his taste wasn't limited to the traditional sounds of his home turf in the north of the country. He relished and championed songs from across the many traditions-Peul, Bobo, Songhai-- of his homeland. In the liner notes, Toumani (who's 54th in a hereditary line) mentions how surprised he was when the two first started playing together to find out how non-griot Ali nailed the ancient Mandé griot songs from the region encompassing southern Mali.

Bé Mankan, one of those old Mandé tunes, gets turned into a waltz by the duo and like all but two tracks on the album, they let their instruments do the talking. Sweet and flowing, Ali picks serenely while Toumani fires off a few of his trademark lightning-fast arpeggios, although as on most of the album, he plays with a certain, almost deferential restraint-no extended fireworks from the kora pyrotechnician here. The next track, Doudou (also from the Mandé tradition), picks up the tempo, and Ali borrows his accompaniment from Singya, a track he recorded years before.

That's a recurring theme of Ali and Toumani: the revisitation and reexamination of older material, of songs that bore some deep meaning for the late maestro. Few held as much import for Ali as Sina Mory, another chestnut he used to hear on the radio and apparently the first tune he learned to play on the guitar, yet had never recorded. On the other hand, two other versions of Machengoidi had been waxed, the first going back to Ali's days playing on Radio Mali, the second (featuring the man on electric guitar) on Savane. But this time, the tune benefits from Toumani's sublime plucking of that big ol' harp-lute, the first time it had been played on a kora, according to the liner notes.

A quiet celebration, Ali and Toumani is a fitting musical last will and testament from one of West Africa's great rootsmen and cultural ambassadors.

Tom Cheyney has been writing about the global and roots music scenes in Los Angeles and around the world since fax machines were high tech.