First Person

Sidi Touré and the Sahel sound

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Sidi Touré hails from Gao, Mali, but the guitarist and singer also sees himself as a citizen of a larger place: the Sahel, the wide grassland region that stretches across Africa from west to east.

“I’m definitely a Sahelian,” said Touré, who took time before the Montreal date of his current tour of the US and Canada to speak to me by phone last week.  As proof, he cited the name of his 2011 album, Sahel Folk.

Right now, millions of people in the western part of the Sahel, where Touré comes from, are facing a severe food crisis. “I’ve seen it firsthand … A hungry man is not a free man. People who are hungry don’t hear anything and don’t see anything. All they think about is hunger,” Touré said. “This [food crisis] is linked to [the conflict] going on Mali right now. If people don’t have the food they need, hunger can push them to do almost anything.”

Oxfam volunteers will be joining Touré at select shows on his current North American tour. He also recently contributed a song, “Euzo,” to a new Oxfam America video (above) which aims to raise awareness about the crisis and its effect on farmers in another Sahelian country, Senegal.

“’Euzo’ is a song about drought, or dryness,” said Touré. “It’s about people in the Sahel cutting trees, [even though] trees are important to keep water in the soil. Some people have gotten depressed and given up on the earth, but you have to still try to make things better; plant more trees; keep things going.”

“Euzo” appears on Touré’s new album, Koïma. The album interprets the traditional myths and songs of the Songhaï people on a decidedly non-traditional instrument: the guitar. Listening to it, you hear soulful chords reminiscent of American blues intertwining with the scratches of a West African violin, and complex rhythms giving way to vocal duets in Touré’s native Songhaï language.

“It’s possible to move people with music,” even if they don’t understand the words, Touré said of his sound’s cross-cultural appeal. “If music touches you when you listen to it, you want to learn more about where it comes from and what it really means.”

Though the album is inspired by tradition, Touré believes music can be a force for change in the modern-day world. In more than three decades of performing, he’s written songs about corruption, flawed government, and other contemporary issues. “It’s the responsibility of artists to talk about things that are not going well, to celebrate things when they are going well, and to bring information to the public,” Touré said.

One thing Touré now hopes to convey to his global audience is the importance of fighting hunger throughout the Sahel, before the crisis escalates further. “Trying to solve this problem of drought, and making sure everyone will have what they need, will solve so many things,” he said. “Politically, and in other ways, too.”

Listen to “Maïmouna” by Sidi Toure on SoundCloud

Oxfam is aiming to help 1.2 million people across seven countries with programs that include cash transfers and cash-for-work initiatives, veterinary care for the livestock on which many families depend, and access to clean water and sanitation. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can support our efforts. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+