Four studio albums into their career, Khruangbin remain the ultimate all-embracing musical globetrotters. While deeply rooted in the music scene of their native Houston in Texas, the trio is also animated with an insatiable curiosity for the non-Western music scenes. Boasting a vast musical knowledge gathered from years of touring and hunting for rare vinyl records, Mark Speer (guitar), Laura Lee Ochoa (bass) and Donald “DJ” Johnson (drums) have been perfecting their musical chops by diving deep into many a popular genre and regional style from the four corners of the world. As showcased with their eclectic 2020 Late Night Tales compilation and their discography to date, Khruangbin flourish when exploring Asian funk, Jamaican dub, psychedelic rock, South American Cumbia, Hindi disco or Ethio jazz, all of which feed into their original compositions.
While the trio is a predominantly instrumental band focused on finding the perfect groove, vocals have been gradually coming to the fore since the 2020 Mordechai release. There were also two hugely successful collaborative EPs with American singer songwriter Leon Bridges – Texas Sun (2020) and Texas Moon (2022). On Ali, released on 23 September 2022 last on Dead Oceans/Late Night Stories, Khruangbin team up with Malian singer songwriter and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré for an exquisite homage to the music of his late father Ali Farka Touré (1939 – 2006).
As epitomised by his latest album Les Racines (“Roots”) released on World Circuit on 10 June 2022, Vieux Farka Touré upholds the legacy of his father by sustaining the same “desert blues” undertones in his own music. Accompanying himself on acoustic and electric guitar, the singer is supported by a small ensemble featuring bass guitar, calabash, kora, Ngoni, flute and backing vocals.
On this new collaboration, the trio and the singer totally eschew this traditional Malian sound in favour of a radically different treatment. The entire record is deliberately bathed in reverb, including Donald “DJ” Johnson’s drumming and Vieux Farka Touré’s vocals. On every song, a new groove and a bassline are unearthed from the original melody and further elaborated upon. And instead of venturing into his trademark guitar solos, Mark Speer takes a step back and adopts a more harmonic role with elegant chordal ornamentations on the guitar and keyboards on the right channel, illustrating Vieux Farka Touré’s guitar lines on the left channel.
With songs in French, Peul, Bambara and Songhai gathered from The River (1990), The Source (1992), Talking Timbuktu (1994), Savanne (2006) and various unreleased archives, Ali is not a compilation of faithful reprises but rather an ode, a new colourful and lateral tribute to a unique body of songs – “A big tribute to the late Ali Farka Touré, thank you” reads the additional lyrics concluding “Savanne”.
Vieux Farka Touré and Khruangbin revisit “Diarabi”, one of Ali’s most famous songs which originally featured on his 1994 masterpiece Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. Most European listeners will also be familiar with Vieux Farka Touré’s superb piano-led 2014 version of the same song as part of the Touré-Raichel Collective album The Paris Session with Israelian singer and pianist Idan Raichel.
Recorded live in under a week, Ali is often unhurried, contemplative and even leaning towards downtempo electronica at times (“Savanne”, “Diarabi” or “Ali Hala Abada”). With its irresistible funk bounce, “Tongo Barra” is a quasi-dancefloor filler with a rousing chorus while “Mahine Me” blends blues rock with Zydeco and boasts the presence of guest Texan musician Ruben Moreno on melodeon.
Ali’s cover artwork features a piece from contemporary Malian artist Abdoulaye Konaté whose woven and dyed textile compositions draw on the craft traditions of West Africa. With its glorious kaleidoscopic layers, “Homme du Sahel” is a fitting visual prelude to the multi-faceted music of Ali Farka Touré revisited through the prism a genre-bending Texan trio.