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Tuesday, November 29, 2022
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"Ali" Courtesy of Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Touré

Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Touré present ‘Ali,’ a celebration of life and a love letter to the art of the groove

The artists of today pay homage to their inspirations through music.

The long-awaited collaboration between modern psychedelic giants Khruangbin and Malian singer-songwriter Vieux Farka Touré is here, and it’s a must-listen for anyone looking for music that cleanses the soul.

Titled “Ali,” the collaborative project honors the late Malian multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré. When you listen to Ali’s music, it is evident almost instantly that his style has shaped the very core of Khruangbin’s sound. Hypnotic, serene guitar passages float under chanting vocal lines that melt in your mind in the heat of his danceable yet calming groove. 

Ali’s music combines traditional Malian musical elements that let him sing from the heart with a uniquely reinvented form of blues, giving his art a voice to speak to the world. Ali’s style fits into the same decades-long musical story that Khruangbin and his son, Vieux Farka Touré, continue today in their music.

The voice of Ali is beautifully present in this homage — in everything from the graceful guitar work of Khruangbin’s Mark Speer to the intoxicating vocals Vieux Farka Touré delivers. He taps into his father’s spirit like never before, with repeating declarations that reach your heart and command you to let go of your troubles as you sway to the bliss of timeless psychedelia. Vieux Farka Touré stays true to the native tongues of Mali in his singing. Still, he communicates through the universal language of music, as any listener can feel the sheer emotion that drives his craft.

Vieux Farka Touré’s voice caresses the backing instrumentals of Khruangbin, matching the nuances of each track flawlessly to create a cohesive warm blanket of sound. His vocals particularly excel in the song “Tamalla,” which is the album’s most upbeat track. His performance, coupled with syncopated percussion, mesh together in one of the best grooves ever crafted by these artists — who have already made a case for themselves as masters of the art of the groove. 

A groove doesn’t just materialize out of nothingness. It has to be breathed into life through layering, repetition, and slight variations on the pattern that catch you by surprise and satisfy your ears. In a heavily groove-based album like this, the most crucial question is how to bring it to life. The first track of “Ali,” “Savanne,” answers that question beautifully.

The song begins with a stripped-down, mellow guitar solo, featuring a sun-soaked pedal reminiscent of the one used in Ali Farka Touré’s guitar work on his legendary 1994 album “Talking Timbuktu.” The discordant interaction between Mark Speer’s fluttering guitar and the subtle, intermittent synths set a mood of suspense that leaves you wondering when the rhythm will come in and force the song into flight. 

Stealthily, Khruangbin’s Donald Johnson (drums) and Laura Lee (bass) slide under the transcendent guitar passage, setting the soundtrack for the psychedelic joyride into a pink sunset that is the rest of the album. The basslines and beats on this project are next-level, which is the caliber we have come to expect from Khruangbin.

From this moment on, the guitar is set free, dancing around the rock-solid groove laid down by Khruangbin’s rhythm section. Throughout every song, the guitar has a life of its own, sometimes floating along with Vieux Farka Touré’s chanted vocal refrains and sometimes departing to explore new pathways in the fabric of the sound.

Khruangbin fully embraces Ali Farka Touré’s distinct brand of blues in the track “Mahine Me.” Fitting the dynamic, larger-than-life harmonies of blues inside the relaxed tone established by the never-ending flow of this album is no easy task, but the song rises to the challenge. Although brief, it is a jubilant jump into a realm of sound not found on many other tracks. Extra percussion elements integral to the project are highlighted in “Mahine Me,” with delightful ratchets and traditional instruments that evoke an irresistible urge to move.

“Mahine Me” leads into an inward spiritual turn on the final two cuts from the album, “Ali Hala Abada” and “Alakarra.” If “Savanne” is a bird taking flight, “Ali Hala Abada” is not the bird's landing — rather, it’s flying for so long that it becomes one with the sky and willingly evaporates into thin air, leaving nothing but precious feathers behind. The soft whispers of “Ali” behind the mystical instrumentation of “Alakarra” are a poetic send-off to celebrate Ali Farka Touré’s spirit and legacy. His presence in the music of “Ali” is revealed before he departs, leaving the listener with an overwhelming sense of release and tranquility.

There is no lack of danceable moments on this album full of dissociative, contemplative compositions that make you feel like your thoughts bleed into the music. The only downfall of this project is that I want more of these melodic-driven pieces. Of course, they would need to be placed strategically within the carefully constructed framework of the album’s continuous ebb and flow.

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Despite the slight shortage of peaks and valleys, the soundscape of “Ali” is stunning. It is often difficult to tell where one track ends and the next one begins in the best way possible. If you are looking for music equally suited for meditating alone under the stars as it is for being the soundtrack to a sweltering summer day spent with friends, look no further. 

The music of “Ali” will take your troubles and gently float them off on a lonely cloud over the savannah. If you find your soul needing a vacation, you can lose yourself inside this entrancing groove.

Grade: A-

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