Dancing with yourself is a skill, one best mastered on a dark dance floor surrounded by people you don’t know. With rhythm seeping through your veins and just enough bravery to release those self-conscious inhibitions that keep you stationary, all you need is the right song to feel like you’re on top of the world. Vieux Farka Toure keeps this in mind when he plays making his concert was one of the most joyful events I’ve attended in a long time.
Vieux Farka Toure is originally from Bamako, Mali. His father is Ali Farka Toure, a two-time Grammy Award-winning guitarist famous for bringing traditional West African music to the U.S. and beyond. Despite his own success, Ali discouraged his son from becoming a musician but against his father’s wishes Vieux enrolled in an art institute in Mali. By 2005 when Ali was dying of cancer, he agreed to record some tracks with his son thereby accepting his musical talent. Since then, Vieux has produced several albums and has collaborated with artists from around the world, earning him international fame as one of the major faces of modern African music.
I didn’t know much about Vieux Farka Toure before I went to this concert. My best friend put his song “Fafa” on a playlist for me last summer and upon hearing it, all I wanted to do was get up and dance. Although I’m not usually a big listener of World Music something about the foreign, smooth beat and the artfully twangy guitar got me hooked immediately. So when I found an announcement his concert at Artisphere in Arlington, I decided it was worth my $18 to expand my musical taste and see something new.
I made it to Artisphere early, just in time to relax for a few minutes on a body pillow before once again springing up as to not inadvertently fall asleep in their comfort. I handed them my ticket and walked into the venue itself and onto the nicest General Admission area I’ve ever seen: clean, warmly colored hardwood flooring that climbed up the left wall, leading up to the main stage. I sat with my back to the wall and surveyed the crowd. In front of me was a middle-aged couple who looked to be on a third date. To my right, some sixty-somethings who by their conversation about African music I concluded were long-standing fans of the genre. To my left, a dad and his daughter. Off to the side of the stage was a group of yuppies sporting their Friday night gear; a tall guy in dreds; people in traditional west African dress. It was quite a diverse crowd.
The warm up band was Elikeh, an Afropop band based out of DC who take their inspiration from Togolese beats and American rock/funk/jazz. The lead singer told us his job was to “prep us” so that Vieux could “cook us.” The group’s lively and energetic sound did just that. At first the audience was sitting or standing rather passively, but a few songs into Elikeh’s set everyone was singing along, shuffling their feet and feeling alive regardless of age, gender, race or class.
By the time we were “prepped enough” it was time for Vieux to take the stage, and take it he sure did. With presence in his traditional dress he sat on his stool and began to strum out on his guitar an intricate, bittersweet tune. Beside him stood a man with a traditional Malian instrument, on the other side a guy with an electric bass, and behind him a white guy at a drum set. I caught my breath from the first as his notes were so full of emotion, but after a few moments the rest of the band joined him and a rhythmic, repetitive, soothing, yet lively sound arose from the four of them. All of his songs seemed to start that way: moments of intense emotion followed by the meditative yet vibrant sounds that made my imagination wander and crystal clear memories flood my brain
I found myself dancing in a sea of people I didn’t know and didn’t care to know, just to feel my muscles move and my heart beat and my mouth smile and smile.
Photo: Katherine Landau/The Georgetown Voice