Jhey say music is food for the soul, and that’s certainly true of ‘Ali’, the serene collaborative project between Texas-based trio Khurangbin and Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré. The idea was to honor the latter’s father, Ali Farka Touré, who was one of the most internationally recognized musicians from the African country and is considered a pioneer of the African desert blues. When it came to choosing collaborators to rework some of Ali’s tracks, Vieux’s manager’s first suggestion was Khruangbin.
Intrigued by their sound style after checking out the band’s music, the musician attended their show at London’s Roundhouse in 2018. “I was so impressed with them as musicians and really cool people,” says Touré, who met the group afterwards. “You can hear in their music they are very high level musicians who are attuned to all kinds of influences from all over the world.”
“We wanted to see how we felt together,” says Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee Ochoa, “because we don’t engage in collaborations with people we don’t get along with, to put it bluntly… Even with your best friend, you couldn’t do a creative project because you want to connect in a particular way, but it seemed like something we were all aligned with and wanted to do.
A year later — around the time Khruangbin was composing his third album, “Mordechai,” and his “Texas Sun” EP with Leon Bridges — the band and Vieux bonded at a studio in Houston. There, they recorded everything together in a one-week window in June 2019. “Old was kind of the third piece of that puzzle,” Laura says. Laura recalls it felt like a “blind date because it was the first time we worked together and we also didn’t know what songs we were going to record together”.
They had no preconceived idea of what the songs would sound like, other than that they would put their own spin on Ali’s songs. “Old was playing and looking at us and saying, ‘Go’“recalls Laura. The improvisational process of the recording, says Vieux, was “very relaxed and peaceful”; the four of them sat together, with Vieux playing each of Ali’s songs that he thought might work for the band.
“For me, the best music is spontaneous – you have to be in the moment,” he says. “That’s how I like to record and how I think you get the best music, the best energy,” he adds. “Khruangbin understood that very well and they were open to any ideas I brought to them, and they brought a lot of talent, love and dedication.”
Drummer Donald ‘DJ’ Johnson Jr. says the “very loose” way of working was new to the trio: “Usually when we go into the studio we try to be very prepared and have a track record of what we do, what we record. Instead of having it all mapped out, they “went blind”.
Additionally, DJ found it particularly “creepy” because his bandmates Laura and guitarist Mark Speer were familiar with Ali’s music before the project, while he was not. “I didn’t know what to expect; I was kind of in the dark,” he says. “Being held at gunpoint is exciting, but to me it was terrifying, musically, because you always want to put your best foot forward. A big part of that, along the way for me, was preparation.
However, he believes that “being naive played into my hand a bit because not digging ahead meant I wasn’t so much in my head about it. And it’s even better, because there’s not the same pressure as something you listen to a lot and worship. In such uncharted territory, DJ “tried to trust my ear and my instincts as much as possible and believe that what I’m producing is the right thing, or at least it would work.”
The band’s guitarist, Mark Steer, who is generally a little more comfortable in “the rogue zone”, as Laura puts it, also “struggled to fit in”. That’s because Vieux’s style of guitar playing encompasses a giant range and takes up a lot of space in a way, so seeing Mark practice where he was sitting was one of the hardest things I’ve seen. saw struggle in the group”.
In that sense, Vieux’s jam-session style helped a lot, as things seemed to fall into place much faster for the band than normal. “Usually we record things multiple times and keep the best take,” says DJ. “But, with Vieux, we didn’t record anything more than twice. When you first play something, you learn the tracks, work out the flaws, and figure out the coordination needed to get the music from your brain to your limbs – whether it’s guitar, drums, or bass.
“Then with the second take, you start to get your bearings. But it’s only on the third that it’s like, ‘Yeah, OK – I feel good!’ With Vieux, we never got there, it was more up to us to find our bearings, but that’s what we keep.
DJ says working with Vieux was “a breeze” and in no time the whole process became “pretty smooth – it was song after song. I felt a bit out of control, but in the common sense because sometimes you don’t need to be in control or know where you’re going.Sometimes the journey itself is the sound, and capturing that moment is special.
Laura agrees, saying that “looking back, it’s good to be thrown out of your comfort zone”, adding that Vieux has “a lot of energy and a real contagious laugh. And, although we don’t didn’t speak the same native language, it didn’t really matter; I think if you have a common goal creatively, friendship comes naturally.
Because they only had a few days together, the first tapings were done quickly in the morning and early afternoon, before Vieux served the kapitan for dinner.
“Fish was a big part of the sessions…it’s the sound of the record,” laughs Laura. “It’s not often someone you’ve never worked with in the studio brings such heartfelt nourishment. But it was and it happened every day.
JThe project was put on hold for a while due to the COVID-19 pandemic the following year. “We couldn’t do anything in 2020 because we weren’t physically able to be in rooms together, which is the heart of the band,” says DJ. “Khruangbin does not work remotely – we always record in a room together.”
They were unable to finalize the album until 2021; When the trio returned to the studio, they began to edit and re-contextualize things to “make it feel more like us,” says Laura. To bring Ali’s music into a collaborative space, she adds, they had to “give some structure — not all, but some — and add extra parts to make it feel more true to who we are.” .
In that sense, it was about the aesthetic that came next: “We wanted to keep everything Old, and then a lot of raw feeling from those early recordings,” says Laura. They aimed to combine the two worlds but making sure they were balanced and not too one-sided; for example, because the source material didn’t sound like it was made in the studio, they added sonic textures so that it conveyed the dusty atmosphere of the original tracks. To achieve this, they recorded their feet rubbing the ground. Laura says of the track “Mahine Me”: “We wanted to get the sound of dust coming off the ground to try and put the listener into a landscape.”
The meditative record is ready to be listened to on a loop. The first time the band listened to the record cover-to-cover, DJ says, they found it “played so well in an environment where you just had to sit with friends and talk. Listening to it in the real world for the first time, we realized how special the project was.”
The band and Vieux aimed to showcase Ali’s legacy and introduce him to a generation of people who might not be aware of his music or his influence. “I think there’s real significance in that,” Laura says. “We live in a time where there’s so much new music and a lot of stars are getting younger and younger, which is just as beautiful, but I feel like there’s less respect for your elders and honor for the ancestors, but I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.
Having previously covered David Bowie’s “Right” and remixed Paul McCartney’s “Pretty Boys”, Laura says that “over time I’ve learned to separate what you’re working on from what it represents. symbolically, because then we’re driving you’re crazy… We made this whole tribute album to someone who is no longer there and that means a lot.As soon as you start thinking about it, it’s like a black hole.
DJ feels the same way, noting, “It’s the most creative thing, when you do something for someone else: is it really good enough? With our own music, we really zoom in on every little piece and put it under a microscope and make sure everything is where it should be, but even more so with this project. It’s also “interesting,” he says, to “see where Ali’s original recordings live now through our interpretations.”
Bringing these different sonic worlds together “resulted in something new, something dynamic,” suggests Vieux. “For me, it’s exciting to take something old and do it again. I think we have achieved a nice balance in this album between my musical universe and that of Khruangbin.
“It’s exciting to take something old and do it again. We have achieved a nice balance” – Vieux Farka Touré
While Vieux shares a similar philosophy to the band, in that they want people who listen to the record to feel “relaxed, happy and relaxed”, he also hopes that they “will feel curious about the roots of the music, curious about Ali and our culture in Mali. I think a lot of people in other parts of the world, especially younger people, will discover the music of Mali through this album – and that’s really a wonderful thing.
It’s also important for him to change perceptions of music because “many outside of Africa have the wrong idea of what life is like in Africa – specifically in Mali. Yes, we have our problems…many serious problems. But there is also so much richness, love and joy, so when I see Malian music being appreciated around the world, it makes me very proud.
“Ali” by Khruangbin and Vieux Farka Touré will be released on September 23
Main photo taken by Jackie Lee Young