IN CONVERSATION WITH: Songhoy Blues
WORDS BY SOPHIE BILLINGTON
Songhoy Blues is a four-piece band from Mali in Africa. Three members hail from the north of the country. One of them is from Bamako in the south where the band met. I met Songhoy Blues in their dressing room at Band on the Wall. They were due to play there that evening. All but one of the men wore hats. Not one of them seemed remotely interested in making a pizza order. One voice was exasperated, ‘I know nothing about pizza!’. Briefly introducing his group, lead singer Aliou Touré named Garba Touré as the guitar player, Oumar Touré as the bass player and Nathanael Dembélé as the drummer. Because he was ‘more chatty’, he was to speak with me the most.
Aliou started off describing the chance beginnings of his now world-famous group. ‘We met in June 2012 at the worst moment of the political situation in Mali’. This was the moment at which the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine took over the north of the country. Aliou explained that music was banned in the three biggest cities in the area emphasising that ‘nearly half of the country wasn’t allowed to play music’. All of the musicians in the north were exiled to the country’s southern capital where Aliou, Garba, Oumar and Nathanael came together.
Describing Bamako as a ‘party-town’ he explained, ‘we went to see a band play one day at a club called Domino and this is where we all met’. Though two of the men were from Gao and he was from Timbuktu, he described a certain nostalgia: ‘if you’re all from the same place and you meet somewhere else, you’re definitely gonna speak about it’. They became friends and started jamming together. It wasn’t long before their first live performance took place at Aliou’s cousin’s wedding, ‘I told her, “I don’t have a band right now but I have a few friends, I can get a mercenary band together’. It was at this wedding that the band clicked into place: ‘The wedding was like a [normal] jam session for us but the crowd really had fun and it was really interesting’. The four men decided to rehearse every day and put their own setlist together, ‘we thought, “how about we put out an album one day?”’.
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The band has gone further than to reach their goal of putting out an album. They have put out two, the latter featuring the likes of US superstar Iggy Pop and UK grime artist Elf Kid. However, not one of the quartet has lost sight of issues at home. They told me how they often use their performances to encourage support for refugees between songs. ‘We got parents and friends from our home town that are still living in refugee camps around the border of Mali, so we kind of feel concerned about that situation. As artists, we have to talk about it’.
On the topic of how it felt to go from political exile to widespread recognition in the West, Aliou stressed the extreme change that it literally involved. Using the climate as a metaphor for the experience he commented, ‘The feeling is like when you take something from the microwave and put it in the freezer. Can you imagine someone from Mali used to 30 degrees to 40-degree heat coming to negative 0 in London in December?’ He even remembered the date, ‘8th of December 2013 was our first time here, and that was a huge change for us. It was the starting block for everything. Right then [at that moment] we looked at each other and agreed to keep doing what we were doing’.
So what did the band think brought them here? ‘Music, it’s the music. In one word right there it’s the music’. An angry passion shot through his next sentence, ‘I don’t think I could ever be in London if I wasn’t a musician,’ pointing at his bandmates he continued, ‘He, never. And he, never! It’s like destiny to be a musician and to go and be in Europe and be touring and talking to journalists and media and stuff. We are lucky actually’.
Although Songhoy Blue combines so many different genres in their music, they describe their music as ‘African groove’. Garba commented, ‘We’re from Africa, and we always listen and try to give a flavour of our traditional music. We are part of a technological generation though, and we try to add more energy to this traditional music’. Aliou, chatty as ever, continued, ‘Simple answer, it’s African music, Malian music that’s it’. He elaborated that six or seven African countries border on Mali, adding that ‘Algeria in the north is an Arabic country, [and has a completely] different culture to Dakhar in the south or the Ivory coast for instance. Even within Mali, there are 13 languages, tribes and types of music so you definitely find rock, blues, reggae, whatever else living in these types of music. We link all of that music together. We link them from the south in Bambara, to Dogon in the middle and Songhoy up there on the desert. So when you put all of those flavours together you get something like Songhoy Blues out’.
Countless reviews have spoken of the band’s energy on stage. Nathanael Dembélé spoke out for the first time, ‘We live in Mali, if we come from Mali in the north, the north doesn’t save [its people who are] living in fear, it is hard for us to enjoy [ourselves] and [be full of] love on stage. We need to be very ener[getic] very powerful in our message and that[’s] the kind of feel we have.’ The band-member continued on in order to explain the rebellious nature of their infamous energy. ‘We can just enjoy [ouselves] and play love music because we didn’t [come] from love… [This is] sedition from the heart, sedition [found in] rock and roll, the blues, the reggae [and the sedition found in] hip hop’.
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Aliou joined his band member’s passion. He described how coming to fame fanned the flames of resistance in the minds of his group and offered an apt metaphor: ‘[It’s] like when you take someone out of jail. It exposes something that blows his mind. He’s definitely going to enjoy the liberty, the new life. [We’ve spent] more than twenty years of our lives in one of the poorest countries in the world with everything missing, liberty, everything, with war, and when you see yourself… living your dream, [you can only be] happy and energetic. [But there’s] also the anger, to take that out of ourselves, expression, cos we kind of wish people could understand what we’re talking about but we can’t, so… we share that energy with people. They always take that away from seeing us play’.
On the subject of what the band felt was amiss from their life of fame, Garba Touré spoke: ‘We miss that moment, our time in north Mali. We miss our family.’ Waving a bag of peanuts the guitar player continued, ‘Mali is not like this, these “nuts” kinds of things. I never got myself food in Mali that is like what we eat here’. Home comforts meant a lot it seemed. Aliou’s face became pensive as he contributed, ‘Your hometown is unlike anywhere else. It’s where you feel better.’ Perhaps it was the humanity of this statement that brought tragedy to what followed: ‘but right now [instead of our home in the north], we live in the south of Mali ‘cos we have no choice you know. There is no embassy in the north, everything is in the south, the airport, visas, everything is in the [southern] capital’.
This led to a discussion of Songhoy Blues’ latest album. ‘The name comes from our journey you know, it comes from our music in exile. If you knew the whole story, the reality of Mali, you would understand why we decided to call this album Resistance’. It became clear to me that the lives of the band members were entangled in the politics of their home country. ‘They say that the north was occupied by jihadist guys, so we say to people to be resistant. You should never be scared of bad people because if you come together, one day you will fight them. The name ‘Resistance’ is meant to imply that when we fight, we will win’.
‘When the whole situation [in Mali] started, the musicians were the people who took on the most pain. When the people in a place understand that there is no security there, nobody is going to play music. So how do those musicians get to live, get to eat? They have families and kids, they’re just people’ ‘Music is really powerful. Extremists tried to forbid it because they know that. Music is a way of communicating important information, and everyone can hear it so quickly’. It struck me that what Songhoy Blues tried to communicate in their performances was a picture of hope. When I finally saw them on stage that night at Band on the Wall, that picture is what impressed me.