Mali natives Songhoy Blues are returning to blow the lid off Band On The Wall on January 23. Before I go any further, I insist that you get the infectious ‘Bamako’ on.
You now understand the headspace this writer is in whilst writing this preview. Since their days on the club circuit in southern Mali, Songhoy Blues have gone from strength to strength. Escaping conflict in the north of Mali, Garba, Aliou and Oumar Touré (no relation bar friendship between them) were forced to move to Bamako. With the north of Mali taken over by a rebel group who sought to ban music, they fled to the south: an event that inspired the title of their award winning first album, Music in Exile.
You wouldn’t know this story from listening to their relentlessly danceable music as, even in the face of exile, there’s an infectious joy to the work of the Tourés. They pride themselves on collaboration, be that in their writing process (songs jump off from their conversations) or in the way they actively seek partners to work with: an approach that means they’ve caught the ear of some of music’s biggest names. In 2013, they formed part of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, they’ve moved on to work with Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and even feature Iggy Pop on their 2017 album, Résistance.
However, whilst many of their tracks capture the love they have for the fun to be had in Mali (see ‘Bamako’ again), they also write music that is incredibly engaged with the political situation. Amidst the backdrop of the Malian civil crisis, Aliou appeals on ‘Soubour’ for refugees to have patience, the literal translation of the song title into English. They lament the situation in north Mali with ‘Mali Nord’ and appeal to the populace to get engaged in the opening track for Résistance, ‘Voter’. Within the joy of their work, the spirit of resistance is ever-present.
A way in which Songhoy Blues capture these seemingly contradictory concepts of joy and resistance is in how they expertly blend Western guitar styles with traditional call-and-response Songhai vocals. Guitarist Garba Touré shows the range of his blues influences evoking Hendrix on ‘Ai Tchere Bele’, Page on ‘Petit Metier’, Hooker on ‘Sahara’ and Harrison on ‘Dabari’.
If you’ve been listening to this article’s embedded tracks, you must be dancing round your room, on the bus or wherever you may be at this point. Somehow, the energy of their records is a shadow of what comes across live. Their shows are famed for including extended jams that showcase the band’s talents as improvisers with Aliou Touré all the while whipping the crowd into a frenzy. If there was a Grammy award for contributions to hype, he’d be a shoe in.
A perfect way to dance off any January blues.