- 05 Nov 20
With their third album, Optimisme, Malian rock n’ rollers Songhoy Blues deliver a blistering commentary on the problems in their home country. “It takes time, but we have hope,” they tell Pat Carty.
If we take the 2007 release of Tinariwen’s third album, Aman Iman, as an admittedly rough starting point, the last decade or so has seen a very welcome and consistent stream of great music emanating from the West African nation of Mali, a balm against the constant barrage of indie and mainstream mediocrity. It’s a simplistic way to put it, probably, but something feels real and genuine about the music of Tinariwen, Vieux Farka Touré – the son of Ali Farka Touré, the man who put the desert blues on the world map, Amadou and Mariam, Samba Touré, and many others, including the great Songhoy Blues. And you can dance to it too, which helps.
The various Songhoy band members originally hailed from Northern Mali, but political turmoil drove them south to the capital city of Bamako. Bass player and founder member, Oumar Touré – bear in mind that Touré is a popular West African surname, he’s no more related to the others than I am to that Carty woman you met in the pub in Roscommon – takes up the story, down a Dublin/Bamako phone connection that’s doing neither of us any favours.
“2012 was a difficult year for us, we were young students and musicians so we went back home to see our parents. At that moment the terrorist rebellion group, they take the North of Mali. They take control of all the big towns of the north and they install sharia law and they ban all music, all activities for young people, like sport, like music, like going to the clubs.”
The group Oumar is referring to here is most likely Ansar Dine, the jihadists who seized control of northern towns during the Tuareg rebellion in 2012. The rebellion was an early stage of the Mali War, waged against the government with the aim of attaining independence for the northern region, known as Azawad.
“At that moment we can do no music in the north, so we decided to move back to Bamako,” Touré continues. “In Bamako we studied, and protested against what was happening. A lot of people were protesting, so we decided to put together a band. If we make a band, we can have an audience and we can play and invite politicians to come and speak, and we can also speak about what's happening in the North.”
The story goes that the musicians were hanging out in places like the Domino pub and it was the wedding of vocalist Aliou Touré’s cousin that brought them together.
“Yeah, Aliou's cousin have a wedding and usually there are some bands who play for the wedding so Aliou says ‘I'm gonna call some guys, call some musicians and they're gonna try to do the wedding’. He called me and Garba [Touré, the band’s lead guitarist] and I called a drummer, and the four of us, we play in the wedding, and from the wedding we take decision to make a band to protest together.”
After playing the music of Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen at that wedding, the band took their name from the Songhai ethnic group of which they are part, and began writing songs in their native Songhai language. Like any band anywhere, they played what local haunts would have them and tried to make connections.
“We start playing in the nightclubs,” Oumar recalls. “We write the songs and we decided to look for someone else who can push us, even it's going to be just a record in the studio. We thought about one great guy here, which is Ardo Gallo. Ardo used to be the bass player for Ali Farka Touré, so we go to see him and we asked if he can help us to record just a demo. He say ‘yeah, I can do that, but I have another project for you guys. Maybe it's gonna be interesting. We have some people, which is Africa Express. They’re gonna come here, and I want to give you guys Marc-Antoine Moreau’s number.”
Africa Express, an organisation dedicated to the facilitating of collaborations between musicians of Africa and the Middle East with their counterparts in Europe, came out of Damon Albarn’s disgust at the fact that the 2005 charity event, Live 8, could only find room for one African artist. The organisation’s first endeavour was to take western musicians to perform at the famed Festival au Désert in the Sahara outside Timbuktu. Africa Express responded to the banning of music in Northern Mali by visiting Bamako in 2013, and Moreau was part of this expedition. Songhoy Blues were apparently living in a one-room shack at the time.
“At that moment we played in a club called Tropicana. We take Moreau’s number, call him and then he come see us playing,” is what happened according to Touré. Moreau, who would also help bring Amadou and Mariam to the world, and who sadly passed away in 2017, remembered things slightly differently when he spoke to The Quietus in 2015.
“I have known Bamako for over 20 years and a sound engineer, who used to do sound for them in a small bar, talked to me and said, "Oh, you should check out this band, they are from Timbuktu, they are very interesting." And so I went to a bar called Tropicana and the music was amazing, kind of what you are listening to now, blues rock, with that strong influence, and I just really loved it.”
With Moreau and his pal, Yeah Yeah Yeahs man Nick Zinner, Songhoy Blues recorded ‘Soubour’ which would go on to be included on the Africa Express compilation, Maison Des Jeunes. With this, things started to happen. Quickly.
“We make these songs and then after one month, they call us and say to go to Dakar to make some passport and visas and then we flew to London for the first time,” says Touré, laughing at the memory. “It was very quick, it was very impressive and it was very, very exciting for us. We didn't think we were going to get international acclaim like that, we were just playing in the night club, we never imagined that one day we're gonna make music around the world.”
The band’s debut album, produced by Zinner and Moreau, was released under the title Music In Exile in 2015 to deserved universal acclaim, and the band played everywhere from Glastonbury to Bonaroo. A second album, Résistance, followed in 2017 and that promotional jaunt found time for a stop in Dublin’s Button Factory for an incendiary performance. The heat is not what Oumar recalls though. He remembers what Dublin was like in November. “Very, very cold,” you can nearly hear him shivering at the memory.
Which brings us to album number three, the brilliant Optimisme, which might seem like an odd title to put on the outside of a record in 2020, but there’s logic behind it.
“It’s because a lot of things have happened in Mali, a sad situation with terrorism, since we did the second album, Résistance. We were resisting, now we need to go to the next level, which is to believe in peace, which we are fighting for, that is why the album is called Optimisme. And also around the world, not just in Mali, a lot of problems happen, like COVID-19, so we need the people to be very optimistic."
You can’t argue with any of that. It’s a record that leaps out through the speakers and sounds like the band are playing in the room beside you. This was intentional too.
“We are most of all a live performance band, that’s why in the studio, we try to have the same energy. It’s very important to show in this record how we are more live performers than studio ones, which is why you can hear all the energy”
Matt Sweeney, who has worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to Billy Corgan, and who produced the band’s Meet Me In The City EP, is back behind the desk again, but it could have just as easily been Nile Rodgers – the band played at London’s Meltdown Festival when Rodgers curated it. No disrespect to Mr Sweeney, who has done a marvellous job and delivered a vibrant album, but the disco king working with these African princes sounds like a match made up above.
“We were looking for Nile Rogers, but he was very busy so we didn’t catch him. Matt Sweeney is a great producer and he brings us this kind of energy to build this more live performance. Nile Rodgers promised to do something with us very soon. We really want to work with him.”
Stomp and Shout
The record kicks off with the break-neck pace of ‘Badala’, which sounds a bit like early Zeppelin deciding to try on a glam rock stomp with added shouting. The title translates, roughly, as “we don’t give a fuck”.
“It’s basically talking about a woman fighting against a man who is trying to control her life,” Oumar explains. “That’s a problem happening a lot in Mali because a woman has no rights. They have to just accept it; this is why we want to have a song about how women want to take their freedom. It’s the woman who says, “I don’t give a fuck, I want to take control of my live”. That is another step for African women.”
‘Gabi’ - another furious, circular riff - would appear to be something similar then, as it deals with arranged marriages. I’m nearly right.
“’Gabi’ is different from ‘Badala’. ‘Badala’ is about freedom for women, but not about marriage. ‘Gabi’ is about parents giving ladies for marriage without their consent here in Africa.”
‘Worry’ is the first time the band has recorded in English.
“Since we start the band, people say ‘we like your music, but we don’t understand what you’re singing about’. With this third album, we write the song first in Songhai language and then we try it in English, maybe we can touch more people, more people can understand the message behind Songhoy Blues, that’s why we decided to write ‘Worry’ in English”
It’s impossible to stay still listening to something like the hyperkinetic ‘Fey Fey’, and its lyrics speak to the fallout from the Mali war, with the band determined that they’re “not going to give into division.”
“People talk more about separation between tribes, the war affected the living together of the different tribes in Mali. ‘Fey Fey’ is about how we must not have a separation between people because we used to live together for 100,000 years before. You can see this kind of song on the first album, we’ve always written about that, and we’ll continue to write songs about that because if you write only one song in the context of Mali, people are going to forget, so we will write more songs about the situation.”
For These There Is Hope
Is there cause for hope for the future in Mali with all that’s going on? The second military coup d’état in eight years took place only this past August, leading to the detention and subsequent resignation of President Keïta.
“We have hope, which is why we call people to be optimistic," Oumar offers. "The tribes in the north, they want to come in with Mali to have a situation change and negotiate with the government, we hope the people can have rights like people do in the US, in France, in the UN, it takes time but we have hope.”
What’s exceptional about the music of Songhoy Blues is the way it combines the influence of the Malian music they come from, with the western music they heard growing up. Guitarist Garba Touré has previously stated that “we grew up listening to old music by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. 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.”
You can go back and listen to that first song ‘Soubour’, which does indeed sound like John Lee Hooker, back from the beyond, and properly plugged in, or their most recent single, ‘Barre’, where fires off guitar lines that would have made Hendrix proud, to hear what he’s talking about. Oumar leaves me with this summation.
“Our music is for all generations and maybe the future generation, so we are in the middle. We listen to a lot western musicians, and also we have a deep influence of traditional music. Our music is the mix of Malian desert blues, which is Malian desert music and Western music. We are a new generation of Malian musicians of the north. Maybe in the future they're going to lose completely the traditional music. We are lucky to have both, traditional and modern music. That is the best description I can give.”
That’s good enough for me.