In common with many of their compatriots, the members of Songhoy Blues found the imposition of Sharia law which followed the arrival of Islamist fundamentalist fighters in their hometowns in Northern Mali in 2012, required them to make some fairly urgent and radical decisions about their lives and their music. Garba Touré was advised that there would be dire consequences if he was caught again in public with his guitar. Singer Aliou Touré and bassist Oumar Touré grew up in Gao, a historic trading city on the Niger River, which was selected by the main Touareg rebel movement as the capital of gtheir new and independent state.
None of the three needed a weatherman to tell them which way the wind was blowing and wasted no time in heading south to Bamako, where the decision was taken to play music together, partly to offer a little entertainment to other refugees from the north, and partly as an act of defiance against the imposition of the culturally suppressive and frankly ludicrous ideas that music was sinful and had no place in Mali. To quote Garba, “The world without music? It would be a prison, right?”
Enlisting the services of local drummer Nathanaël Dembélé, himself no stranger to the violence that was already rife in Mali, they threw themselves into Bamako nightlife, playing marathon sets every night: “four hours, ten til two, no breaks”. The band’s break came in September 2013 when, prompted by local studio owner Barou Diallo, Aliou cold-called producer Marc-Antoine Moreau, who was in Bamako scouting for musicians to appear on a compilation album for Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project. An audition followed and the band soon found themselves teamed up with Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) as producer. They recorded the song ‘Soubour’, which ended up as opening track on the 2013 album, Maison des Jeunes, ahead of a number of international gigs. The collaboration with Nick has continued through the recording of their debut album, Music In Exile, which has been released this week.
That first song, ‘Soubour’, is an angular, bluesy groove which gets the album off to a flying start, its polyrhythmic percussion and fiery lead guitar burning with an intensity that echoes its lyric, which translates as a request to refugees from the conflict in the north of Mali to have patience. As Garba explains, “Without patience, nothing is possible”. The chanted vocals of ‘Irganda’ (meaning “our environment”) are interwoven with a hypnotic guitar riff and driven by an irresistible rhythm but, again, this is music which isn’t just for dancing: its lyric is a plea for a greater understanding of the ways in which we are all contributors to climate change and it’s therefore down to all of us to find solutions before it’s too late.
‘Al Hassidi Terei’, the A-side of the first single from the album, is an uptempo shuffle with a call-and-response vocal; it radiates a shimmering heat like an overdriven valve amp, while the accompanying video is a dizzying (and I use the word advisedly!) celebration of the dance which never fails to make me smile. The jittery guitar riffing of ‘Sekou Oumarou’ calls to mind early John Lee Hooker – no surprise when you remember that Malian music had perfected the blues before there even *was* a blues. As the sleeve notes point out, “when Ali or Garba talk about the blues or rock’n’roll, they’re talking about long lost cousins who’ve come back home” and the deceptively lazy, offbeat bass and crisp fingerclicks and handclaps make for one of the album’s highlights at the same time as they remind us of the common roots of all music. Similarly, the electric desert blues of ‘Nick’ welcomes the spirits of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters back from their 1930s Chicago home in fine style. This is rhythm’n’blues as oldies like me understand it: a solid, dance-your-socks-off groove with no five-octave coloratura soprano vocal range required.
‘Ai Tchere Bele’ is an almost dangerously fast slab of funk, encircled by spindly guitar and powered by a fractiously intricate interplay between the drums and the bass, a brief drop in the middle allowing the vocals centre-stage for a moment before the band returns in a swirling rope of sound to its turn-on-a-sixpence ending. There’s a more stereotypically desert blues to be found in the downtempo ‘Wayei’ although the setting makes a great showcase for Songhoy Blues’ part-time and only female member Poupée’s vocal interplay with Ali, while driving metallic percussion and a wiry riff make space in the trance-y groove for some fluid lead guitar. It’s followed by the acoustic ballad ‘Petit Metier’, a pretty, introspective interlude with Ali’s vocal gymnastics set against Garba’s simple, strummed guitar. The song builds gradually, introducing some emotive ensemble singing over lightly skittering percussion and a spoken-word rap brings it to a satisfying conclusion.
Reverbed clicks and a spiralling riff underpin ‘Jolie’, a stately and measured blues that gathers momentum as the percussion fills out and more voices enter. Heavily treated guitars reflect the vocal harmonies back into the mix before coalescing into precise powerchords behind Poupée’s high and clear voice, which appears like the last rays of the sun through the evening clouds. The major key ‘Desert Melodie’ finds Ali calling for ethnic harmony in the north of Mali over a complex, swaying rhythm filled out with ambient chirps and tweets against a gentle call-and-response vocal arrangement to make an unexpected highlight. The album closes with ‘Mali’, the B-side of ‘Al Hassidi Terei’ and a thoughtful acoustic blues with a heartfelt lyric about belief in one nation, beyond cynicism and hate.
Listening to that last song, it’s interesting to consider – given the immense range of musical styles and sounds that have come out of Mali in recent years – how constant the lyrical theme of unification is; but perhaps this is simply a natural and entirely understandable reaction to seeing one’s homeland ravaged by war and conflict for years on end. What does come across quite strikingly when listening to the album as a whole, is its range, its power – and the sheer love of music which these four young men clearly have. By turns energetic and joyous, tranquil and reflective, Music in Exile looks set to be one of the most well-balanced and optimistic records you’re likely to hear this year.
Review by: Helen Gregory