African multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré had become a legend by the time he died in 2006. His music was used in a song for “Black Panther,” and he was thought of as a pioneer of African desert blues.
Touré’s son Vieux Farka Touré has also made waves around the world with his genre-crossing music. That music is celebrated in the new documentary “Vieux de Niafunké,” which includes an appearance by one of his enthusiastic fans, Matthew McConaughey.
“[McConaughey] was very excited to share his thought and his stories about Ali, and then speak a little bit about the musical traditions being handed down to Ali’s son, Vieux, and then a little bit about the culture of Mali,” says the doc’s director, Ian Campbell.
Campbell, a documentary cinematographer and director, was another one of Vieux Farka Touré’s admirers. “I’m a huge fan of Vieux [Farka Touré’s] and have been for many years,” Campbell tells Variety. “Over the years I developed a fantasy about shooting a documentary with him for not much more reason than just being able to learn about his music and his process and more of the musical culture of Mali.”
Born in Niafunké, a village along the Niger River in Mali, Vieux Farka Touré may have had a Grammy-winning father, but the elder musician would have preferred his son follow the family lineage of being a soldier instead of pursuing music. But shortly before he died of cancer in 2006, Ali gave his son his blessing to pursue music and even was featured on his self-titled debut album. Originally a drummer at Mali’s Institut National des Arts, Vieux Farka Touré developed a knack for guitar beginning in 2001. Over the last two decades, he has developed a widely celebrated discography that encompasses the roots of his father’s music, while incorporating elements of rock, Latin music and other African influences.
Campbell began filming “Vieux de Niafunké” at the end of 2017, a process that lasted two years, followed by a year of post-production. He and his team finished the film right as the pandemic hit.
“This year was weird with festivals and everything else, so we decided not to push that path,” producer Justin Szlasa says. “We’re in the process of activating our marketing to music fans, but also fans of African culture… It’s not easy to get beyond that audience, but that’s what we’re going to try to do. Kind of leading with the music and leading with Vieux as a very charismatic presence, we hope we can get different attention past those obvious targets.”
The documentary is currently available on Vimeo, but the filmmakers have plans to work with distributors to reach a larger worldwide audience. Alongside Campbell and Szlasa, “Vieux de Niafunké” was produced by Sandrine Magloire. Campbell says he would love to screen the film in local theaters, but knows focusing on streaming will allow for a wider reach.
“I wanted to create a project that I would be able to put out to the world and be able to connect with fans or people that don’t know they should be fans [and to] be able to introduce to them to this music and also the culture and other Malian musicians,” Campbell says.
The filmmaker’s description of Touré as an anti-celebrity matches the mission of the film to tell a story about the power of music, community and love, as opposed to the cultivation of a star’s image.
“Vieux and his management team let me kind of create the piece that I wanted to create. They weren’t interested in putting any two cents in. I basically did what I wanted to do and they gave me free rein to join him on tour wherever he was in the world,” Campbell explains. “It was a very open process and I basically had a blank canvas.”
In addition to illustrating Touré’s global reach through dozens of around-the-world performances, “Vieux de Niafunké” illustrates the significance of music in Mali. It explores the armed rebel invasion of the northern part of the country that began in 2012 and forbade music.
“What I do comes from there, where I grew up,” Touré says in the documentary. “I took four months to play in Diré, Niafunké, Sélingue, Bamako, everywhere. It was very important that Malians know what I do. That my community knows what I do.”