From the great array of Malian ethnic groups comes the Songhai, once a self-designated ethnic and linguistic culture, arising from the banks of the River Niger amid the ancient cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Over the course of the 15th and 16th Centuries, the Songhai Empire spread itself over the arid lands between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savanna, eliciting itself as a powerful and prominent people. Though the enormous size of the Songhai Empire eventually became its downfall, it remains in places, fierce in pride and rich in cultural embellishments of history, religion and above all, music.
I am introduced to the Songhoy Blues, a four-piece blues rock band originating from the nucleus of old Gao in Mali. Where the story perhaps loses its natural progression – of the solitary romantic artist’s bedroom-penned release being suddenly shipped to success on Bandcamp – the narrative of the Songhoy Blues is grounded in cultural realism. Founding members Aliou and Oumar Touré were forced into leaving their homes when Islamic extremists took the area. “We didn’t leave Mali, we still live there,” Aliou assures, “But we had to leave our hometowns of Timbuktu and Gao in the North of the country when they were invaded by the Islamists who banned music.”
“Music in Mali is the life-blood of the country, and that’s why it must never be banned.”
They fled Gao to seek refuge in Bamako, where they had previously met guitarist Garba Touré (whose father was percussionist of the Ali Farka Touré band) when studying at University. As the political situation in the North continued to worsen, the trio met drummer Nat Dembele, and formed The Songhoy Blues, as an ode to the culture in which they’d been raised and exiled from. Oumar describes the creation of a band as the only route they could take: “We wanted to play for our people in exile in Bamako, the Songhoy people. We are musicians and we have to play.” They seem far from solemn, saying they use their music as much as a tool to attempt to influence and attack politics as they use it for escapism. One dominant ethos runs through the conversation, that “Music in Mali is the life-blood of the country, and that’s why it must never be banned.”
The veins of music pulsating life through the Songhoy Blues can be seen in as little as the infectious smile Aliou has fixed to his face that evening, throughout the sold-out show at Bristol’s Fleece. “We love the UK, it’s our second home now! We started 18 months ago playing for 50 people in a club in London, and then suddenly we played the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury this summer. It’s been amazing.” They seem more confused than I do; thundering through their debut album Music In Exile is some of the purest, most joyous blues music heard in a generation. There’s the cool panache of Lightin’ Hopkins with the raw intensity and complete riffs of Muddy Waters and early Rolling Stones. For an explanation, one only has to look as far as how they were influenced as musicians, “by our traditional songs and by Ali Farka Toure, a great Malian music legend. But also by the blues of Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and others.” Aliou continues to say, “and the culture of Mali is in our lyrics always.”
Garba explains how there was still a great amount of luck between becoming a staple of local music in Bamako and being discovered: “We met our managers through Africa Express and they asked Nick Zinner (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) to get involved. Then by chance they played the music to Transgressive Records and they wanted to work with us!” Slowly, The Songhoy Blues are becoming figureheads in the Western gaze of African Blues music. Aware of their rising platform, they discard any pressure that comes alongside, but are proud to be where they are, smiling.
“We are getting to tour all over the world, and bringing our culture to the people. We want to represent all of the Mali people.” And returning to the music they use to showcase Mali to the world, I end by asking what exactly it is they want their live show to represent, above all else. A carefully thought out list follows: “Love, frustration, passion… Pain, happiness, anger… Mali, joy, the Malian culture.”
(Feature Image by David Wolff/Getty)