This is a story of two rivers. One of my existence and my own history. One in my dreams. One preserved as a photograph in my own archives. One as a place I dream of seeing someday. One with a story I can tell with my photos and words. One with a story that comes out of songs and music from a far off land.
This is a story of two instruments. One popular and played throughout the world by millions on a diverse range of styles. One tied to a cultural and historical heritage of a small group of nations in West Africa and played by a much smaller number of people.
This is a story of two men. One older and seasoned player forging his own deep rooted sound out of six strings. One much younger player coaxing intricate patterns from an ancient 21 string instrument.
This is a story of two directions-north and south. Two places within the boundaries of the same nation with dramatically different languages, culture, traditions and music.
This is the story of In The Heart Of The Moon, a groundbreaking album released in 2005 by the late Ali Farka Toure on guitar, and Toumani Diabate on the kora.
For some reason or another, I have been thinking about rivers a lot recently. About everything they represent-movement, calm, strength, division. Actually this isn’t the first time I have had these thoughts. In an earlier post I wrote about how Jimmy Cliff’s classic song Many Rivers To Cross seemed apt for this time of year as people go through lists of resolutions and aspirations. One river at a time we try to cross over only to be confronted by another obstacle on the other side.
But I was also thinking about rivers in an even more personal context over this past weekend while listening to In The Heart Of The Moon. Rarely a month goes by without me playing it at least once. It was recorded in a portable studio alongside the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. Astonishingly it was recorded unrehearsed by the two men who come from vastly different musical and cultural differences within the country of Mali.
Ali Farka Toure, came from the northern part of Mali and ethnically was Songhai. Ali’s bluesy guitar style won him many fans in the West. It was not a stretch to recognize his guitar playing as being the origins of the earliest Delta blues recordings made in the U.S. So much so that over the years you will see his name on blues compilations right next to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. His songs and guitar go deep to the soul. It isn’t flashy playing like so many rock guitarists but comes from the soul itself.
Toumani Diabate on the other hand comes from the southern part of Mali and by heritage is a griot-renowned story tellers and preservers of tradition. Toumani’s own line of griots goes back over 70 generations and the kora, a harp instrument the typical (though not exclusive) accompaniment. Despite his traditional background Toumani was well versed in American rock and soul at the same time he was developing his skills on the kora. He has showcased this on a range of projects both contemporary and traditional, all the while putting the kora in the forefront with his astounding skills.
What is astonishing about In The Heart Of The Moon is that it has the movement of a river itself throughout the entire album with the gorgeous interplay between the kora and the guitar. You feel the movement and stillness of the river. You feel the gentle cooling breeze and the stifling heat. You hear the gentle sound of water crashing against rocks or the squawking of birds. You sense the calming rays of sunrise and sunset, you feel the movement of people and boats on the water. You feel life.
As the years have gone by since first hearing the album I have tried to transport myself along with the music to the banks of the Niger, imagining that same sort of ebb and flow. The beauty of music, much like the beauty of photography is that it can transport you anywhere you want. It invokes emotion, memories from the past or even dreams. In The Heart Of The Moon may have been recorded along the Niger River but the music is of any river where you have ever experienced this type of feeling. I think about the distance rivers go from the mountains to the sea. The people along the way. The fish and birds that run its course. Times when the river floods and causes devastation and times when a moment in time can be frozen perfectly in its beauty, be it a photograph, a painting, or even a song.
I spent time the past few days really thinking about ‘my’ river-the mighty Hudson River here in New York. From its humble origins up north, winding its way down the beautiful Hudson Valley past towns and cities all the way to the mouth of the ocean in New York Harbor it has its stories, and I have my stories that go along with it. I have seen it up close by boat. I have hiked alongside it. I have kicked back with a glass of wine alongside its banks basking in the sunlight. I have witnessed sunrise and sunset, ice and snow. It is never too far away from both my mind or geographically. When I listen to In The Heart Of The Moon I am reminded how lucky I am to have this sort of inspiration in my life. Especially for my art of photography.
The photo I used in that earlier post about Jimmy Cliff was taken alongside the Hudson several years ago on a rainy, foggy June day. This photo comes from that same day. The album cover for In The Heart Of The Moon has a faded image of an old sailboat on the Niger. I did not take this photo as an homage to that album cover. It was merely something I thought looked interesting at the time. As I have been thinking these thoughts about rivers the last few days, I thought this photo seemed a perfect match to present this music. A way of expressing the river of my story, and the river of this music. A river that flows from far away bearing beautiful music to the world. A river where my photos can drift and be seen in the same way. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate’s river of music. My river of photography. What more do we need?
Below is a short promo film about the making of In The Heart Of The Moon as well as my own favorite song on the album. I urge you to listen to them both and feel the river drifting towards you as well.
Kadi Kadi-Music By Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle
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