THREE years ago, the Malian desert blues punk band Songhoy Blues had to flee Islamist militants who had banned all music when taking over the north east of the African country. Leaving behind their home town of Gao, singer and guitarist Aliou Touré, Garba Touré, Oumar Touré and Nathanael Dembele united in Bamako, naming themselves in celebration of their displaced Songhoy people and culture.
Their international journey began in 2013 and their profile was buoyed further by their ecstatically received shows at this year’s South by South West Festival in Austin, Texas, and their first American tour in support of Alabama Shakes. In Britain, they delivered sold-out shows at Oslo in Hackney and the Village Underground in Shoreditch earlier this year, followed by a spot performing Soubour on BBC2’s Later with Jools Holland and August appearances at the Green Man and Boomtown Fair festivals.
“It was a question of life or death in Gao, not only for us in particular but for the whole population,” says Aliou Touré, recalling the torrent of civilians that took flight from northern Mali in 2012.
Songhoy Blues’ big break followed in September 2013 when French music manager Marc-Antoine Moreau was in their new home of Bamako on a scouting mission for Africa Express. Subsequently, the band were invited to record Soubour with Nick Zinner, whereupon track ended up as a stand-out track on the Africa Express album, Maison des Jeunes. However, it was another song, Al Hassidi Terei, that brought them to the attention of the likes of BBC 6Music, or more precisely it was the exuberant video that accompanied it.
“Some very young film-makers, aged about 20, came up with the idea for the video [with its kaleidoscope of colourful shirts and backdrops],” says bass player Oumar, in French, translated on the phone by an interpreter. “We shot it in London, where they set up a studio in a car park, not far from London Bridge.”
Unlike those shirts, “it’s been a quiet release for our album in the UK,” says guitarist Garba Touré. “We recorded it in Bamako in April last year and it was finished and mixed in London and we were expecting to release it a bit earlier than we did, but because of the promotion it needed, it was held back to February.”
The band is keen to break away from the constraints of being a world music act. “Where we want to develop is to present ourselves as a rock act, not world music band,” says Garba. “So we didn’t look at releasing the album on World Circuit, but on Transgressive Records, a progressive label, whereas World Circuit has a more middle-aged audience. We want to appeal to people of our own generation.”
How come Songhoy Blues developed as a desert blues punk band? “It’s all about a generation thing” says Garba. “People like Ali Farka Toure are a different generation. Now the younger generation want to listen to anything, like in America.”
Songhoy Blues feature in the film They Will have To Kill Us First, a documentary account of the struggles faced by musicians in Mali that received its premiere at South By South West earlier this year.
“We play for refugees in Bamako and it’s important to play for people in northern Mali to give them a good vibe and give them comfort,” says Oumar. “But it’s also important on the international front to spread the message, to introduce our songs and talk about our music.”
Ask Aliou how risky it is to be a musician in Mali, and he replies: “Everything in life is a risk, but we want to do what we do and so you have to take some risks sometimes, but you need to avoid trouble while continuing your fight, so our wish is to spread the message against those who might wish to ban music in northern Mali.
“There’s no music on the radio, so if you play it you take a big risk; you’re even not being allowed to use your phone because you can get music on your phone.”
Nevertheless, the irresistible music of Songhoy Blues will find its way beyond such bounds, and more is on the way. “Yeah, we’re working on new ideas for songs when we have the time,” says Garba. “The idea will be to record a new album in January, though some new stuff may come out earlier as a surprise.”