Is the world ready for Songhoy Blues?

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“It was terrifying,” says Garba Touré. “Absolutely terrifying, and all I could think was that I had to get out. I didn’t know how but I knew I had to go.” Garba Touré, the young, striking lead guitarist with Songhoy Blues, the Malian desert blues outfit who wowed audiences with 2015’s Music In Exile, is referring to the civil war that broke out in Mali in spring 2012, when the northern half of the country descended into chaos with extremists and rebels fighting for control. When the former seized power of Gao, a bustling city located on the eastern bank of the Niger river that Garba called home, he – with thousands of others – fled to Bamako, Mali’s capital, a 15-hour bus ride away.

“We were placed under Sharia law in Gao. There was terrible violence, people fighting in the streets, they were whipping people, they said we couldn’t play music, we couldn’t sing, we couldn’t drink, we couldn’t smoke. We couldn’t do anything and if we did, there were repercussions. I had to get out, I had no choice. I took some clothes, took my guitar, got on a bus and left straight away.”

As radio stations, mobile phone towers and recording studios were dismantled and musicians threatened with violence, Aliou Touré (no relation) headed for the capital too. “At this time we had no idea we were going to form a band together, even less an idea that music was going to become our career, that was far from our minds,” says Aliou. “Instead we were asking ourselves loads of questions, the main one, when we get to Bamako would the problem follow us? Would it come as far as Bamako? Were we safe there? Because it was like a tornado, you just could not calculate which way the wind was blowing, it was difficult to have any view of the future and how it would work out, or what would happen. In 2011, when the Libyan crisis blew up, I saw thousands of refugees arriving in Gao without shoes and clothing. They were tired, hungry, scared, so when it started happening in Mali, I asked myself, is that going to happen to us? Are we going to become refugees in Bamako, Senegal, Algeria? It was a frightening prospect to have to consider.”

Today the situation couldn’t be more different for Garba and Aliou, not just because relative peace has been restored in northern Mali after a French-backed military initiative helped remove the jihadists from power, but also because with bassist Oumar Touré (again no relation) and drummer Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Dembélé, they are now one of the most successful groups to emerge from Mali, appealing to both traditionalists and a new generation enthralled by western blues and classic rock.

This is in part thanks to Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, which “discovered” the group in 2013, but more the fact that their aforesaid Music In Exile album is one of, if not the blues album of 2015. Sold-out European tours have followed its issue, also a stirring performance on Jools Holland’s Later… TV show, and the day The Blues speaks to them, there’s a preview showing of the excellent _They Will _Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile film. Produced, directed and filmed by Johanna Schwartz, it documents the group plus Khaira Arby, Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar and Moussa Ag Sidi’s plight.

Chatting to The Blues over lunch in the bar of London’s Picturehouse Central, Songhoy Blues plus their English French translator are polite, enthusiastic, humble and keen to tell their unique tale. They are also impeccably attired in patterned knitwear, smart jeans and polished shoes. A change of clothes – black suit trousers, white shirts – are hung on the back of their chairs, to change into later – it seems the band’s budget doesn’t cover a hotel room.

It doesn’t bother the group though. “Every musician has that dream that it could happen, that they could get recognised and make it big, but we never thought it would happen to us,” says Garba. “It is just like every footballer has the dream that they will play for Barcelona or Chelsea, the dream is always there. But that it should actually happen at that time in particular, we had no conception of that and that we are now here in Europe, performing our music to packed houses, being interviewed, being written about, appearing on TV, in a film, it is beyond our wildest beliefs.”

It doesn’t matter what language you speak, music is universal, everyone can understand it.

Garba had got the music bug from a young age. His father, confusingly also called Oumar Touré, had played percussion with Mali singer guitarist Ali Farka Touré and through him, Garba was made aware of Jimi Hendrix, BB King and John Lee Hooker. “It wasn’t just that I loved hearing their music, but I loved the stories he would tell me about them and the mythology surrounding them, that really appealed to me too, and from listening to them it just seemed like a natural progression to think about making music for myself,” he explains.

Aliou, meanwhile, equates his desire to play music to, “a simple love story. I found myself drawn to music and dance. I’d gravitate to anywhere it was being performed from a young child. The draw was almost inexplicable, it has just always been there. It’s like a dog seeking its bone, it’s been like that from the beginning, making music is something deep and natural for me,” he says.

Their success story, like them, begins humbly. Refugee Garba, arriving in Bamako on a Thursday, found sanctuary at the compound of Ali Farka Touré. On the Saturday he met Aliou and Oumar, both staying with family members, in a club and the three started jamming – they’d previously met while studying at university in Bamako; Garba studied biology, Aliou law and Oumar music at the conservatoire. Both Aliou and Garba had played in bands before.

Aliou’s cousin, also a refugee in Bamako, was getting married and asked Aliou if he would perform at the wedding ceremony the next day. “I said to them, ‘Guys, I’ve got a wedding tomorrow. Do you fancy playing it?’ We had no set, no repertoire, no nothing, but we went along and just did Ali Farka Touré covers and well known dance songs from the northern Mali area, and that was our first gig,” explains Aliou.

A few days after the wedding they recruited a Bamako drummer called Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Dembélé and started to rehearse: “It was Ramadan,” explains Aliou, “and not a lot was going on, we were all living with our relatives, no jobs, nothing to do, so we had a lot of time on our hands which we spent either sleeping or jamming together.”

They started to play local bars and clubs, securing residencies at the Casa Tropicana and The Arizona. Wide grins spread across Garba and Aliou’s faces as they reminisce about those early days playing Bamako’s club scene.

“Our audience in the beginning was mainly made up of refugees from the north, all the different ethnic groups were there, Songhoy, Tuareg, and they were all drawn there as a nostalgia thing,” says Aliou. “We played music from the north and it was a place to go and meet other people. You’d see people from home who you didn’t know had left, so it was like, ‘Oh, you’re here. What happened? What’s your story?’ It was our community, a home from home.”

“And there was a crazy atmosphere, it was really mad, really wild,” says Garba. “There was no stage at our shows, they were always packed, chaotic, most of the audience was young, enthusiastic and we would play from 9pm to 2am with no break, and I mean no break. If one of us needed the toilet, the others would keep playing and keep the music going and then you’d come back and just pick up where you left off. It really was the place to be, and after 1am, people got drunk, lairy, every night ended in a fight, it’s what we would call a ‘hot’ night.”

“And during that phase, we very quickly realised there was this need to write our own songs because of the unique situation we were in,” says Aliou. “We were refugees in Bamako, but we were all conscious that there were refugees all over the Niger, and writing songs was a way of trying to come to terms with this crazy situation we were in. We felt this need to start writing about it and start expressing it, because it was just too powerful to ignore. We told ourselves we couldn’t just stay shipwrecked by a crisis like this. We had to form a band and Songhoy Blues was born out of that.”

Songhoy refers to the group’s ethnicity – it can also be spelled Songhai or Sonrai – and the Songhoy make up approximately six per cent of Mali’s population.

“But we didn’t see how we’d ever break through or make it on a world stage because we couldn’t see how we would ever come across anyone who could lead us into an international career,” says Garba. “There was no one around like that in Mali, there was no one to make a connection with who came from outside. Breaking out seemed an impossibility to us.”

But when Africa Express, a project involving African and western musicians masterminded by Blur’s Damon Albarn, rolled into Bamako in October 2013 on a recruitment drive, that connection was made.

Damon Albarn had launched Africa Express in 2006 when, with Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright and Jamie T, he went to Mali to work with Tounami Diabaté, Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyate. High profile performances at Glastonbury Festival and the BBC Electric Proms followed, and there were further trips to Nigeria, the Congo and Ethiopia and a Spanish beach show for 50,000 people.

“Africa Express was our big opportunity,” says Garba. “We were nervous, but excited at the prospect.”

A local studio owner Barou Diallo suggested they cold call Amadou & Mariam’s manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, who was in Bamako to scout for local talent for the project.

“Aliou called him up and an audition was arranged,” says Garba. “We played a couple of songs, they liked them and suggested we work with Nick Zinner. Marc told us that Nick was a famous American guitarist.”

Nick Zinner, who had made the trip to Bamako with Brian Eno, Idris Elba and Ghostpoet, made his name in the New York outfit the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and before hooking up with Songhoy Blues had collaborated with the likes of Ronnie Spector, The Horrors and Scarlett Johansson.

“The next day we went into the studio with Nick and started playing songs. It felt very natural and easy,” says Garba. “We got on immediately and hit a stride.”

“Because of music, music was the connector,” says Aliou. “A, C or a D note is the same in New York, Mali, China or wherever. That is the thing that is so crucial and allows the connections to be made. Even if we don’t speak English and they don’t speak French, music allows you to connect, and it happened very naturally in the studio.”

The result, a track called Soubour – which means “patience” – was produced by Zinner and Damon Albarn collaborator Remi Kabaka and ended up on the Africa Express Presents: Maison des Jeunes album issued in December 2013. Rooted in Malian tradition but also conversant with John Lee Hooker- styled hypnotic boogie, its rough- edged punky blues energy made it the album’s main draw. That same month, Songhoy Blues visited London for the first time to play the album launch at Oval Space. “It was a joyous occasion for us,” says Garba. “We couldn’t believe that in the space of a year, we’d gone from fleeing our homes in total fear for our lives, to playing at weddings, in clubs, then in the UK. We didn’t know what to expect, and it was very cold but it was very warm inside. The UK crowds are just the same as the crowds in Mali, they want a good time and we gave them one.”

Writing songs was a way of trying to come to terms with this crazy situation we were in.

In April 2014, buoyed by their live success, the group went into Bamako’s Humble Heart studio with Nick Zinner to record Music In Exile. A spectacular debut of rousing rebel music and message songs featuring Albarn on backing vocals, its execution is passionate, thrilling in its cries for justice, freedom and unity.

On release, it turned their world upside down.

“Life really has changed for us,” says Garba. “When we go back home, our family and friends are all very supportive but strangers and acquaintances who recognise us on the street can be a bit strange. They make assumptions, they think the success has gone to our heads, and they are eager to reject us because they think we’re all uppity now we’ve been to Europe. They like to cut us down to size.”

“But of course we are still ourselves,” says Aliou. “We haven’t changed one bit and we have nostalgia for the simple life that is still there in Mali. So when we come off tour, we go back to the Tropicana and the Arizona, we see bands playing, we dance, sing, we sit down with our mates and drink tea with them on the street corner, we chat. We still take the bus from A to B. We will never give up on our old life, we miss it when we are on the road.”

Their album follow-up, this year’s Re-Covered EP, is equally compelling and captures the group successfully putting their stamp on The Clash’s Should I Stay Or Should I Go – in their hands a call to arms for refugees around the world – Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir (approved by Jimmy Page) and Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa. “It was our label Transgressive’s idea to cover the songs; they picked them, they thought it was a good way to get our message and music across to a wider audience. It’s like we said before, it doesn’t matter what language you speak, music is universal, everyone understands it,” says Aliou. “We like the message of The Clash, we like the blues of Led Zeppelin, we relate to Manu Dibango, so it felt like the right thing to do,” adds Garba.

As for their plans for the future: “It’s really important for us to defend the Songhoy culture and make music that educates people about it and also celebrates it,” says Aliou. “And we are very conscious of having been given this gift of being able to communicate information about Mali and what’s going on there to a wider audience,” adds Garba. “We want to keep doing that. And we want to keep making great music.” And given their journey so far, there’s little doubt about them doing that.

Music In Exile is out now via Transgressive. Visit www.songhoy-blues.com for more information.