Having a famous dad can be more of a curse than a blessing. For every Barry Bonds or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both of whom overtook their fathers in the family business, there are thousands of sons who follow their dads with little success. (Franz Xaver Mozart, anyone?) But Vieux Farka Touré, the son of the great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, has already stepped out from his late father's shadow. Ali Farka Touré proved – in case anyone ever doubted it – that the soul of the blues could be found in West Africa. His son Vieux is turning heads with a more radical idea: that those western Saharan roots can be heard in everything from the jam band scene to Jamaican dub.
Fondo, Vieux's newest effort and his Six Degrees debut, is more than a stirring mix of traditional instruments and modern production. More than a world music artist embracing the sounds of rock, it is the sound of a young man coming into his own. His self-titled debut, released in 2006, seemed to be the passing of a torch, as it included the last recordings by his legendary father, and a healthy dose of traditional Malian songs from his father's repertoire. But his new album has only one traditional song; everything else was written by Vieux himself. The album's opening salvo, "Fafa," has a bluesy rhythm and intricate guitar solos that may recall Eric Clapton's glory days with Cream.
In fact, Fondo showcases Vieux's guitar playing in several different musical settings. He has mastered the short, stinging phrases of his father, but he reels off some extended guitar jams as well. The song "Mali" is a tribute to the Farka Touré homeland, elegant and restrained but joyful as well, with Vieux's guitar soaring over a catchy, repeating riff. The funky, syncopated "Ai Haira" suggests a highly caffeinated version of reggae, with its talking drum solo and jammy guitar. And "Sarama," despite using acoustic percussion, has more than a hint of drum'n'bass; the song also pairs a fast, hypnotic bass line in the style of Moroccan Gnawa music with classic call-and-response vocals, all driven by a gradual buildup of heavy rock drumming. Not bad for a 5-minute song.
Vieux's arrangement of the traditional song "Wale" is the album's clearest tribute to the ancient musical heritage of his country and his family. Vocals by the great Afel Bocoum, who sang and played guitar with Ali Farka Touré for several decades, provide a direct link to the previous generation. The electric bass, on the other hand, reminds us that this is a younger generation at work. Elsewhere, those loping desert rhythms blend beautifully with the sounds of Delta blues. On "Souba Souba," it's co-producer Yossi Fine (David Bowie, Hassan Hakmoun, ODB) whose electric bass provides that rhythm while Vieux offers simple, direct guitar solos between the sung lines – no drums or percussion needed here. And on the aptly named "Slow Jam," one of the album's two instrumentals, Vieux revels in the similarities between a slow blues and the traditional rhythms of the Western Sahara.
If you want to get a quick view of the musical terrain that Vieux Farka Touré has staked for himself, all you have to do is check out the remarkable sequence towards the end of Fondo. "Diaraby Magni" brings the African diaspora from both sides of the Atlantic together, with a reggae rhythm, syncopated guitar, heavily reverbed percussion and vocals, and Yossi Fine's spacey, dub production. "Cherie Le" is an up-tempo affair (Mali's rhythms usually take their time – not here, though) with a more urban, Western sound. If the lyrics were in English, this could almost pass for an Allman Brothers song. And on "Paradise," Toumani Diabate – the world's greatest living player of the kora, Mali's ancient troubadour harp – joins Vieux on a guitar/kora duet that recalls the haunting album that Diabate did with Vieux's father just a year before Ali Farka Touré's death. Vieux Farka Touré's career in music would never have happened, if his illustrious parent had his way. Ali felt that the music business was a harsh place to work. But young Vieux found a mentor in Toumani Diabate, and his own guitar skills eventually convinced the elder Farka Touré that a second generation of family musicians was inevitable. This is music from a contemporary Africa – urban, sophisticated, globally connected but deeply proud of its ancient heritage. This is the old/new Africa that Vieux represents. Fondo is the music of an Africa that rocks, and yet still hears the camel's tread in the sand.