The 'DNA of the blues'

Posted: Thursday, October 21, 2010

C onfession: Lately, I've been getting seriously into the blues. Like bad. So bad that my obsession with its tasty 12-bar form is starting to deter my friends and family from wanting to ride in the car with me. I've tried to tell them that the rainy weather is what sends me scramblin' for my Howlin Wolf tapes, but to no avail. I ride alone these days it seems. Hrumph. All the better to crank the tunes, I say. And good riddance. Between Buddy Guy and B.B. King, there's no room anyway. But having just said that, imagine my surprise when I found a stowaway yesterday!

Nope, not my pal Al or my cat Jake.

Actually, my stowaway was of the digital variety. Tucked unassumingly in between Albert King and AFI on my iPod was Ali Farka Toure's "The Source," his acclaimed 1991 world/roots/blues album. I hit shuffle on the 'Pod and it launched right into "Inchana Massina," the second track off of the albums.

Right away, I heard Toure's spindly, otherworldly guitar style - it lilts up and down, a rhythmic melody with a lot of ornamentation: trills, note bends and slides, all composed of pentatonic fragments. It resembles blues fingerstyle enough to be familiar-feeling, but it obviously isn't.

As I was struggling to find the meter of the song, a percussion instrument that sounded like the three-way love child of a set of spoons, castanets and horse hooves came in with a beat resembling the rhythm of an Indian raga. Combined with the guitar, it was understatedly chaotic - there seemed to be melody-bits, but no actual melody...

...but then the singing began and suddenly the guitar and the spoons merged together, creating a wonderfully fluid backdrop to what I can only describe as a classic African folk song chorus call-and-response. I suddenly I realized why the album is called "The Source:" though Farka Toure is playing the roots music of his home country, Mali, it's actually the blues. Only, before it was the blues.

A famous quote by Martin Scorcese characterizes Toure's music as "the DNA of the blues," a description that certainly has held up under my scrutiny. The similarities will be most apparent to blues aficionados who are already familiar with the "vocabulary" of the genre, but I think most listeners will be able to draw the connection as well. Some of the sounds of the instruments, like a harmonica-esque sound (which I think might actually be a bowed, stringed instrument, like a violin) that pops up on the first track, are so evocative of those on early blues tunes that it's virtually impossible to miss. Regardless, it's great music, resplendent with the human condition and equally good for chillin' out with your cat or driving around in your car all by your little lonesome.

* Tyler Preston is a local musician and ne'er-do-well. You can find him, and a link to his past music reviews, at

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