Songhoy Blues are tak­ing the pul­sat­ing rock of trou­bled Mali to the world, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - Songhoy Blues

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

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