Recording information: New York, NY; Studio Tonmeister, Mainz, Germany; Studio Yele, Barou Diallo, Bamako, Mali.
Photographers: Ron Wyman; Kay Blunt-Clayden; C. William Gilbert; Zeb Goodell.
Arranger: Vieux Farka Tour?.
Prior to Mali's militant Islamist uprising in 2012, native guitarist Vieux Farka Tour? had been making preparations for his fourth album, a sort of homage to the musical and cultural heritage of his country. A moderate Islamist himself, Tour? was shaken by the brutal conflicts, feeling that both his religious beliefs and his country's reputation were being hijacked by misguided extremists. The desire to cast Mali in a more peaceful and tolerant light became the backbone of an album already dedicated its artistic preservation. The follow-up to his highly regarded 2011 release, The Secret, Mon Pays (which translates to "My Country"), is at once more subtle and more loaded with intention than its predecessor. The broad crossover appeal of The Secret, which featured collaborations with western artists like Dave Matthews, Derek Trucks, and John Scofield, is dialed back on Mon Pays in favor of a largely acoustic and decidedly more African sound. Echoing the distinct style of his father's guitar work, Tour? deftly incorporates the intricate acoustic blues traditions of Northern and Southern Mali into a soulful and cyclical groove on the stand-out track "Future," where he duets with kora player Sidiki Diabate. With this pairing, the two musicians cement a tradition begun by their own fathers Ali Farka Tour? and Toumani Diabate, who made a pair of excellent albums together in the '90s and were close friends. It's these layers of personal depth and adherence to tradition that give this album the kind of poignancy that would stand out even without the implied backdrop of Mali's political turmoil. Although his fluid guitar playing is the primary focus, Tour?'s understated vocals are particularly effective on the meditative closer "Ay Bakoy," a collaboration with Israeli pianist Idan Raichel. Mon Pays is an album of great complexity, expressing joy, sorrow, and wonderment. Hearing Tour?'s passion and pride expressed through this fine recording, it's difficult to believe that the Islamic militants in Mali placed a country-wide ban on music. Whatever the outcome for the people of Mali, the rest of the world should feel fortunate to have access to music like this. ~ Timothy Monger
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