Songhoy Blues are a desert-punk band from Bamako, Mali. In 2013, having been scouted by Marc-Antoine Moreau to be part of the African Express ‘Maison Des Jeunes’ album project, the band recorded a track with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The track in question was ‘Soubour’ and would go on to become the standout track of the album.
Following the success of ‘Soubour’, Songhoy Blues headed back into the studio with Zinner, this time to record their full-length debut, ‘Music In Exile’.
Quickly snapped up by Transgressive Records and Atlantic Records, the last 18 months has seen the release of ‘Music in Exile’ to critical acclaim, an extensive touring plot including support slots with Damon Albarn, Julian Casablancas and Alabama Shakes, appearances on national TV and Radio in the UK, Europe and America, including notably a performance on ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ and sessions on BBC 6Music, XFM and NPR, and a coveted slot on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival.
With their reputation for electric live performances growing each day, the remainder of 2015 will see the band touring Europe extensively as well as taking in Asia for the first time. Beyond that is a mystery but one thing is certain, the band’s trajectory is pointed stoically skywards.
“A triumph…” The Guardian ****
“Songhoy Blues are set to become West-Africa’s biggest export” Songlines ****
“The sounds and beats of Mali but gnarled, distorted” NME 8/10
“A churning, looselimbed garagerock take on traditional Malian music” Rolling Stone
Biography by Andy Morgan
Aliou Toure has vivid memories of the moment his luck changed. “I was the one who called Marc-Antoine,” he says. “I said ‘Hello. ‘I’m the singer in a young band from the north, from Timbuktu and Gao. We’re called Songhoy Blues…And we’re playing tonight – at the Tropicana!’”
It was September 2013 and French music manager Marc-Antoine Moreau was in Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa, to scout for musical talent on behalf of Africa Express. The Damon Albarn-led project was planning its second major foray to Mali, one of Africa’s most prolific musical nations. After almost two years of civil war and jihad in the north of the country, Albarn and his cohorts felt it was time to head back and show some solidarity in the country’s darkest hour.
During the previous year, singer Aliou Touré and his fellow band-members Oumar Touré (guitar – no relation), Garba Touré (bass – still no relation) and Nathaniel Dembélé (drums – definitely no relation) had been earning a meagre crust in Bamako’s neighbourhood dance bars (known as maquis in the local argot).
The pay was scarcely better than a bag of peanuts and equipment often had to be borrowed or hired because the band didn’t have their own. Songhoy Blues would play two or three regular residences a week: 10pm to 2am, non-stop, no breaks. Not to mention the weddings, baptisms and other ‘extra-curricular’ gigs or the fact that Garba and Oumar were still at University.
Added to that, the three Toures had to cope with the worry of knowing that their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins were still languishing up north, either under the yoke of the Islamist fanatics or, after January 2013, in the crossfire of Operation Serval, the French-led initiative to drive the jihadists out of the country. But those worries were shared by their audience, who were mostly northerners in exile like themselves.
Ali’s call to Marc-Antoine Moreau lead to an audition and an invitation to record a song with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The song was called ‘Soubour’ (‘Patience’) and it ended up as the opening track and universally acknowledged ‘hit’ of Maison des Jeunes, the Africa Express album that chronicled the Bamako trip.
Songhoy Blues were invited to London to perform at the launch of the album in November 2013. The invitation provoked “explosive joy” in Garba Toure and the rest of the band. None of them had ever travelled beyond their West African horizons before and their stay in London was predictably and wondrously unforgettable.
What a difference a few months can make.
* * * *
To understand Songhoy Blues, you have to delve a little into Mali’s complex history and geography. Most of this vast country is taken up by the sands and of the Sahara desert or the semi-arid scrublands of the Sahel. In 1960, it became an independent nation that comprised a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups with their own languages and cultures.
One of those ethnicities are the Songhoy, who live along the banks of the great Niger river, between the ancient cities of Timbuktu and Gao. They emerged over a thousand years ago, and reached their apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Songhoy Empire covered an area comparable in size to the modern state of Mali. Then the Sultan of Morocco invaded Timbuktu and the Songhoy suffered a long slow decline.
Malian Independence confirmed their status as a once-powerful but depleted people, living on the margins of this new West African nation whose political and cultural life was dominated by the Bambara people of the south. Songhoy language and culture played second fiddle, but they retained a fierce pride in their history, beliefs and music.
Oumar Toure and Aliou Toure grew up in the neighbourhood of Gadeye, right in the heart of old Gao, next to the great crumbling tombs of the great imperial Askia dynasty. One of Aliou’s grandfathers was the imam of the tombs. The other was the founder of Takamba Super Onze, one of Gao’s most famous musical institutions.
Like most most of the kids in Gao, Oumar and Ali were obsessed with hip hop and R&B – names like Tupac Shakur and Craig David pop-up readily – as well as bands like The Beatles, The Police, Bad Company, Jimi Hendrix. But none of those foreign names could usurp Ali and Oumar’s deep attachment to the home grown songs and dances of the Songhoy, both traditional styles like the takamba and the modern guitar-based sounds popularised by the likes of Ibrahim Dicko, Baba Salah and, above all, Ali Farka Touré. “He really was a light for us,” Oumar says.
Blending the trad and the modern, the homegrown and the foreign, the youthful and the ancient became a mission of sorts. For Oumar, this clash of opposites has never posed a problem. “It’s more of a strength,” he says. “Because we never chose modernity. Modernity chose us. But we don’t just follow modernity; we plumb our ancient culture. We look, we listen, we research deep into things. That’s what gives us strength.”
By the time they turned twenty, Ali and Oumar were both playing in band called Lassaliz, whilst studying (law and town planning respectively) at university in Bamako. In 2010, Oumar met another young guitarist called Garba Touré at a festival in the small town of Diré, just 75 miles south of Timbuktu. Garba was the son of Oumar Touré, long time percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band.
Life flowed on relatively safe and predictable currents. Then, on January 17th 2012, any sense safety and normality was ripped to shreds when fighters belonging to the Touareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked the town of Menaka, to the east of Gao. This was the latest incarnation of a Touareg-dominated struggle for rights, freedom and ultimately independence from Mali that had been bubbling on and off since 1963.
Ironically, when they received news of the attack, Oumar and Ali were on their way to the town of Bourem to play at a festival designed to foster fraternal feelings between the Touareg and Songhoy. After various adventures, they managed to leave the north and take refuge down south in Bamako, with various members of their families.
Garba had just returned from the world-famous Festival in the Desert when he heard about the attack of January 17th. He was still in Diré some weeks later when MNLA rebels entered the town in their Toyota 4×4 pickups. Although he feared their bristling Kalashnikovs and RPGs and disagreed with their stated aim of dividing Mali in two, Garba paints a relatively benign picture of the months when Diré was under MNLA control.
All that changed when the Islamist extremists rolled into town. They had hi-jacked the MNLA’s rebellion and turned it into an all-out jihad against Mali and the West. Just after their arrival, Garba was strolling over to a friend’s house with his favourite ‘mini’ acoustic guitar when he was accosted by two pickups full of mujahedeen flying the black flag of jihad. Didn’t he know that all ‘decadent’ music was haram – sinful? Next time they caught him, they warned, his guitar would be smashed to smithereens. Garba knew it was time to leave. He managed to catch a bus and smuggle himself and his electric guitar out of the jihadi-occupied north.
Songhoy Blues was born from all this adversity. “We met up [in Bamako],” Garba remembers, “and told ourselves that we couldn’t just stay shipwrecked by the crisis like this. We had to form a band.” They roped in a young drummer called Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Dembélé from the Bamako music conservatoire and baptised their new four piece Songhoy Blues. Why? Because they were proud of being Songhoy and they had the blues. So did their entire people. The gigs and residencies started to come, the four hour stints with no-breaks, kicking out a mix of covers and originals, full of northern flavours: Gao takamba, Touareg guitar, Songhoy trance and traditional desert melodies.
Then, after months on the local club and bar treadmill, a Bamako music producer and studio-owner by the name of Barou Diallo called to say that this French guy called Marc-Antoine was in town looking for new talent. “Give him a call,” Barou urged.
So they did.
* * * *
After their initial trip to London the band returned to the UK in the summer of 2014 to play gigs in London, Glasgow and at the WOMAD Festival, where they had the audience hollering for more long after they had left the stage. The band then signed a deal with Transgressive and recorded their debut album ‘Music In Exile’ With Nick Zinner and Marc-Antoine Moreau in the producer seats. A full length feature film about the banning of music in Mali, with Songhoy Blues in a central role, is in the offing. And all this international recognition is feeding the band’s reputation back home, bringing southern audiences to their increasingly rammed gigs and Mali’s state-run and payola-ridden media networks to a grudging recognition of their growing fame.
All those tired old ‘world music’ prejudices have no place here. Songhoy Blues are four talented, hungry, sharp and outward-looking young men from a part of the world that has had more than its share of pain and conflict in recent years. But it has given far far more than its share of music and joy to the world in return over the past four decades. That place may seem strange, alien and ‘exotic’ to some, but deep down, Songhoy Blues are familiar proposition: four guys, guitar, drums, bass and vocals, driving rhythms, big hearts and a big story to tell.
Sounds familiar? Course it does. It’s rock’n’roll. It’s the blues. Straight from the land where it all began.