You’re probably familiar with the surname Touré. Depending on your interests, it either evokes images of Ivorian soccer player Yaya Touré, or one of Mali’s greatest musical exports, Ali “Farka” Touré. A little less known – for now – is Nakhane Touré (25), who chose to adopt that surname as a tribute to the musician, who’s been his greatest inspiration.
“I love my name and what it means [“nakhane” means “build each other up” in isiXhosa]. I certainly do want my work to build people up. Every time I create something, it feels like a fluke – as if I’ll never be able to do that again. So I discover things about myself [continually] and in that way, I get to understand myself better,” says Touré.
“When I changed my surname from Mavuso to Touré, I never thought about anyone else. It was a very personal decision and I don’t remember even discussing it with my family. The homage was from me to Ali Farka Touré,” he adds.
Touré might have taken on a legendary performer’s name, but when you listen to his album, Brave Confusion, you’re immediately struck by tunes which have been inspired by multiple sources, leaving you convinced you’ve heard parts of his music before. This is a gift Touré has, as most of his productions have a familiar feeling.
“My mother is the reason I’m the musician I am. I spent my childhood going through her records: the O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Temptations. I followed her to choir practice almost every night. If she wouldn’t allow me to come with her, I’d hide in the boot of her car and when she arrived there, I’d bang on it from inside until she opened it for me. I really loved the choir practice,” he recalls.
Touré is a complicated artist who’s one of a handful of musos making organic music in SA. He allows his music to lead him, which means it’s almost impossible to label his productions into neat and well-established genres.
“I try not to describe, name or categorise my works. That way, they can be whatever they want to be. My inspiration is vast and ranges from Radiohead, Neil Young, Busi Mhlongo and Fela Kuti, to James Baldwin, Sello Duiker, Joni Mitchell, Zakes Mda and Brenda Fassie, among many others,” he says.
Even using a descriptor like “slightly off-centre” for his music – as it’s not commercial – doesn’t sit well with Touré. Surprisingly, he also dislikes being associated with the underground music movement, something most artists cherish.
“Some commercial music has an incredible amount of meaning and some off-centre music can be meaningless. It’s all really subjective. It’s about intention and whether you’ve made a connection with a certain listener. I make music because I have to. I’ve always had to: when I was happy and when I was sad. I write songs because there’s something I need to convey to someone. I write because I want to exorcise demons. I write in order to challenge people,” he says.
And Touré certainly has much to be both sad and happy about. He’s had to fight for his place in the local entertainment industry and that success has come with a fair share of disappointment.
“Rejection is part of the process. Some rejection can be really empowering. When my novel Piggy Boy’s Blues [Jacana] was rejected by a certain reader who helps my publisher choose which works to publish, I used his somewhat confused criticism to fuel me. That’s been the motto of my life, really: to use what was intended to maim in order to achieve empowerment.
“Some rejection is fair and good, and maybe I don’t get it at the time. I was rejected three times on Idols SA. In hindsight, I thank God that happened. I wouldn’t have been the kind of artist I am now had I not been rejected there. But I’ve been rejected my entire life so I know the experience well,” he reflects.
Touré lives a life that’s true only to himself and no-one else. This philosophy also permeates his other creative endeavours as an author and actor. Whether you listen to his collaboration We Dance Again with South African house music pioneer DJ Black Coffee, read Piggy Boy’s Blues, watch him act in a music video or poignantly express himself as part of a TEDx Talk, you realise that titles and names mean a lot to him.
“A title is incredibly important. It’s a name. It’s the first thing people know about a person or object. It’s the initial signifier that gives someone or something meaning. It almost legitimises your existence,” he says.
“The title of my album came about when I was creating a connection between myself and American writer James Baldwin. It was taken from a phrase in his debut novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain [Knopf]. I like the literary tradition of finding commonality in different works, stringing them together by using the earlier work to show where your vision is, where you’re finding inspiration.
“The title of my novel was more playful. There, I wanted to work with counterpoint. Those first two words, ‘Piggy Boy’ –which are explained in the book – are ridiculous, but hilarious to me. I wanted to juxtapose them with ‘Blues’, a term whose meaning everyone understands. I really enjoy combining things that aren’t supposed to work or even exist together. I also did that in the lyrics of We Dance Again. The opening line is: ‘I did laugh in the middle of a deathly scene’,” he explains.
“Art is supposed to make you feel less alone in the world. There are people who’ve been through similar situations to mine. When I write about my life, they see that and maybe it helps them feel less isolated. If that happens, my job is done.”
Nakhane Touré is part of the Africa Day Concert 2016 line-up taking place in Newtown on 28 May.
This article first appeared in the May issue of Sawubona magazine, available here, for free.