SOUNDS OF DEFIANCE
Songhoy Blues are taking the pulsating rock of troubled Mali to the world, writes Jane Cornwell
In a first-floor hotel room on London’s Euston Road, directly across from the British Library, four young men from Mali are crouching on the shagpile, brewing tea on a tiny camping stove. The ceremony involved is as old as the trading routes that crisscross the southern Sahara: leaves and water are boiled and poured into a glass that is tipped back into the pot. Sugar and more water are added. The process is repeated. Each pot yields three thick, strong measures.
“There is an old saying that the first cup is bitter like life, the second is sweet like love.” Singer Aliou Toure sits up on the edge of a single bed, smiling from under the brim of his straw trilby. “And the third is soft, like the breath of a dying man.”
Drummer Nathanael “Nat” Dembele nods as he hands out the tea, his rhinestone earring glinting. Perched on the other bed, bass player Oumar Toure and guitarist Garba Toure — whose father was a long-time percussionist for Grammy-winning blues guitarist and songwriter Ali Farka Toure — flash grins.
“When we were students in Bamako,” Garba Toure says, picking up the Gibson acoustic resting across a pillow, “we’d add more and more boiling water to the same leaves. It made the tea go further.”
Things have changed. The quartet known as Songhoy Blues is the biggest, most exciting band to have emerged from West Africa in years. It has been feted by the likes of Damon Albarn and Brian Eno, selling out large venues across Britain and Europe and garnering accolades, including a “best new band” nomination at the recent Q Awards in London. The meteoric rise of these four university graduates, all of whom belong to the Songhoy ethnic group, has been nothing short of astonishing.
After our interview they’re off to play an acoustic session for BBC radio, which means their guitars will remain unplugged and Dembele will coax rhythms from a calabash gourd with his fists. Later in the night he’ll be back on kit drums at a sold-out gig in Camden as Songhoy Blues unleash their electrifying mix of rock, blues and R&B, layered over Malian grooves.
The band recently toured the US as support act for Alabama Shakes, and in March it will make its Australian debut, including appearances at the Byron Bay Bluesfest and WOMADelaide — where it will share a bill with flamenco star Diego el Cigala and South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But make no mistake: Songhoy Blues are an all-stops-out guitar band. “World music” they are not.
“We grew up listening to old music by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker,” Garba Toure says, picking out a melody on the Gibson. “But our main diet was hip hop and R&B. We can’t stay in the traditional aesthetic of our grandparents; that was another time. Besides, we love electric guitars too much.”
The band’s debut album, Music in Exile, produced by Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and featuring backing vocals by Albarn, was released this year to widespread acclaim. “You can hear both the exile’s homesick yearning and the musician’s rebellion in this energetic Africa-blues-rock,” said London’s Daily Telegraph.
If the title of the album hints at Songhoy Blues’ backstory, the recent feature-length documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First — which focuses on several exiled musicians from northern Mali, tracing Songhoy Blues’ path from their homes to the Malian capital Bamako, to playing London’s Royal Albert Hall — drives home the point. In 2012, Islamic extremists captured Mali’s embattled north, an area roughly the size of Britain and France, and used sharia law to impose a cultural fatwa that, among other things, banned music.
Such a decree seems unthinkable in most places, but especially in Mali, where music is almost as essential as oxygen. The nation has produced a rollcall of international stars, including Bamako-based artists such as kora maestro Toumani Diabate, singer-songwriter Rokia Traore and soul revue act Amadou & Mariam, as well as, from the north of Mali, Tuareg blues outfit Tinariwen, Ali Farka Toure and his son, the guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. All these artists and more have graced stages in Australia.
“Those jihadi guys tried to enforce sharia law in places that had been Muslim for centuries,” says Aliou Toure, a qualified lawyer who grew up near the Niger River in Gao, a town that in the 16th century was the centre of the Songhoy empire, briefly one of the largest and most sophisticated political entities in Africa. “They banned every radio station, every bar and club. If you were suspected of listening to music or watching movies, you were in big trouble.”
Faced with loss of life or limb for practising their art, thousands of musicians joined the mass exodus to refugee camps across the border in Burkina Faso, or journeyed down south to seek refuge in Bamako. Aliou Toure, along with the unrelated Garba Toure and Oumar Toure from Timbuktu (Toure is a common surname in Mali), were among the latter. After meeting in Bamako they started jamming, recruiting conservatory-trained drummer Dembele to round out the familiar guitar, drums, bass and vocals rock band template.
“We knew we’d be OK once we got to Bamako,” says Oumar Toure. “All of us had family there, and we’d gone to Bamako University so we knew our way around. But there were families from the north with no connections in the city who were living on the streets” — footage of which is shown in They Will Have to Kill Us First — “or were grouped together in schools and stadiums and fed by volunteers and NGOs.”
Garba Toure lays down his Gibson. “Once you become a refugee something changes forever,” he says quietly. “You can never go back to the way you were, not even in your mind. The whole experience, the violence and the corruption, hardens you.” He pauses for a few beats. “There’s a loss of innocence.”
An initial rebellion by Tuareg separatist organisation MNLA, which had joined forces with al-Qa’ida-linked group Ansar Dine to try to gain control of northern Mali, eventually meant that any Tuareg nomad in a blue headscarf was fair game for beatings, or worse.
In January 2013, French troops intervened to help the struggling Malian army evict the radical Islamists. Peace deals were brokered and broken; violence flared in Bamako just last month when two gunmen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and explosives killed 19 people in the Radisson Blu Hotel, with militant groups including Ansar Dine claiming responsibility. “Up in the north it is still hard to work out who are the bad guys and who are the good guys,” says Aliou Toure. “A lot of people have guns now. They just picked up weapons the army and the rebels left behind. It’s like hide and seek.”
It was during the month of Ramadan that the four members of Songhoy Blues began writing songs (in French, Bambara and Songhoy) that articulated the feelings of Mali’s youth, giving voice to their sense of longing, frustration and displacement. You could dance to these songs but they also made you think.
“We wanted to represent the crisis in Mali, and also to convey the effect that poverty has on societies,” says Oumar Toure, pointing out that Mali happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world. “It’s illogical how these days everyone is so interconnected by technology and social media and yet politically most people are still very ignorant about what is going on elsewhere.”
Songhoy Blues’ first public performance was at the wedding of Aliou Toure’s cousin. Then came a chance to play in the shebeen-style bars that are common in Bamako, particularly a club called Domino. They won fans and grewin confidence ahead of their big break in September 2013 when Zinner and Marc Antoine Moreau, the manager of Amadou & Mariam, held auditions for Albarn’s long-running Africa Express project — which nurtures collaborations between African and Western artists. The track they performed, the rollicking Soubour, was chosen for that year’s Africa Express compilation, Maison des Jeunes. They were invited to perform at the album’s launch in London.
“We’d never heard of Damon Albarn or [Africa Express collaborator] Brian Eno before Africa Express,” says Aliou Toure with a grin.
“Damon was like anyone else you might meet on the street. It was only when we had a chance to come to the UK that we realised he was a big star.”
They returned to London a few months later, in the summer of 2014, learning English, playing shows in London, Glasgow and at the WOMAD festival (“We were like an explosion”), taking the main stage at Glastonbury and supporting Albarn’s band Blur at the Royal Albert Hall.
They signed to Transgressive Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic, home to indie darlings Foals and Bloc Party, and filmed scenes for They Will Have to Kill Us First, which was titled after a statement by Disco, leader of the female Tuareg ensemble Tartit (another leading presence in the documentary), in response to the ban on music. “The rest of the world only started to care about Mali when they found out music had been outlawed,” Garba Toure says.
“But I understand why. It’s such a fundamental concept, music; a fundamental right. But you know, we didn’t stop playing music,” he adds with a smile. “We couldn’t.”
That night Songhoy Blues arrive onstage to cheers of recognition from a young, mainly white hipster crowd.
Their set is rock-heavy, tight-knit and varied, a maelstrom of electric desert blues, rapid-fire guitar solos and, on one track, a rolling bassline lifted from Canned Heat’s On the Road Again. Aliou Toure is a mesmerising frontman, given to moments of splay-footed rock posing and bursts of fluid, ghostly dancing inspired by the Sahel’s signature takamba dance, which he grew up performing.
Three foot-stomping encores culminate in a fanging Soubour, and the place is in a frenzy. “Please! Come and see us in Bamako!” shouts Aliou Toure, and everybody in the venue seems up for it. Then the four musicians leave the stage in single file, grinning broadly, waving their towels over their heads: famous, committed, and mightily proud of their roots.
will play Byron Bay Bluesfest and WOMADelaide in March.
Songhoy Blues have experienced a meteoric rise to stardom