Khruangbin teams up with Vieux Farka Touré on the groovy "Ali"

by Rachel Crowell

Khruangbin teams up with Vieux Farka Touré on the groovy "Ali"

Khruangbin’s new album Ali is an excellent representation of the melting pot that is their discography. For this release, they teamed up with Malian artist Vieux Farka Touré. According to an article published by the BBC, the Malian artist recruited Khruangbin for his new album without any prior knowledge of their work, but the band is a huge fan of Touré and his late father, Ali Farka Touré, who is considered a legend in Mali. Touré also gained recognition in the United States for earning three Grammy awards between 1995 and 2011. With the help of Khruangbin, Vieux Farka Touré re-recorded his late father’s music. To enhance the authenticity of Khruangbin’s sound, the Malian artist did not reveal what song the band was playing until they were cutting the tracks and adding vocals — so they improvised all eight tracks in one week, during back-to-back sessions.

The band Khruangbin formed because of their love for international music. Although the members are from Texas, they do not rely on country or folk music to define their sound. The name Khruangbin translates to “airplane” in Thai, and they would describe their sound as Thai funk — though most critics often throw on other labels like soul, surf rock, psychedelic, rock, dub and funk, or even electronic. Yet the trio always honor their namesake, blending music from international roots to create immaculately interwoven soundscapes. For example, past projects like Mordechai and Con Todo El Mundo saw the band combine completely different genres like Iranian rock and Thai funk into cohesive, aesthetic records.

It’s no surprise, then, that Vieux Farka Touré’s and Khruangbin’s sounds meld together beautifully in every track on the album. Touré’s typically slow and melodic rhythm is sped up with the help of Khruangbin’s groovy psychedelic sounds. It’s clear that the band is following Touré’s lead, because he provides the majority of the vocals on the album. Most of the lyrics are also sung in French, the national language of Mali. Listeners can research the meaning of the songs, but Ali’s production quality and echoing vocals transcend the need for translations to appreciate the music. The opening song “Savane” is a mellow track, gently guiding the listener into the album’s Saharan soundscape. This song pays homage to Ali Farka Touré’s patriotism, protesting Western intervention on Mali’s domestic affairs. Khruangbin lays down a crisp beat to pair with Vieux’s smooth, melodic vocals.

The rest of the album dives deeper into Touré’s Malian roots. “Tongo Barra” is sung in the Malian Songhai dialect. The song begins with Texan riffs that guitarist Mark Speer plucks on strings, leading into Farka Touré’s arpeggio vocals, which sound like a chant. The song encourages the listener to join the artists on their mission to commemorate Ali Farka Touré. Despite its length, the track flies by with the rich combination of chants and funky guitar, and flows seamlessly into the next song. In fact, all the transitions in the album are skillful: a twangy Texan guitar embedded into every song greets the listener at the premier note, and then wishes them farewell on the last strum of the guitar.

The album’s pacing and length are masterfully executed; Touré clearly put a lot of thought into the songs that he chose to add to the album. Although Khruangbin expressed their desire to focus on commemorating Ali Farka Touré, it would be refreshing to hear more of their vocals in the tracks. The band has proven that they are capable of recording in various languages, as they have shown in songs like “Pelota” and “Connaissais de Face” from their third studio album, Mordechai. The Texan trio’s vocals could’ve breathed life into stale air in songs like “Mahine Me” or “Ali Hala Abada.” The record is rich and melodic, but some of the songs could benefit from a wider range of vocals. Despite language differences, listeners from both Africa and the U.S. can feel the history and grit that Ali holds in every note. This tribute project beautifully depicts Vieux Farka Touré’s dedication to respecting his father’s legacy, but no one could have predicted the product of Malian and Texan music would be so sonorous and groovy. Ali leaves listeners to wonder which part of the world Khruangbin will bring to their ears in their next project, and although no one can predict where its roots will lie, they can be sure that it will be crafted beautifully.