“I am sorry if you don’t understand what we are saying in our songs, I will try and explain”, said Aliou Tourè, lead singer of Malian band Songhoy Blues, mid-concert in Sala Bikini in Barcelona, less than a month ago. The atmosphere in the room was festive, every person in the room was shaking a least one part of their body. While the music is captivating, forcing you to tremble, their message is less obvious. Aliou tries to overcome that; he spoke of racism, slavery, censorship, and longing for their home.
Songhoy blues is a quartet of North Malians from Gao and Timbuktu. In 2012, the area was taken by jihadists, who sought to ban any form of entertainment or cultural heritage. During that time, locals even saved manuscripts and books to preserve their culture as jihadists burned everything else.
Garba, Aliou, Oumar Tourè and Nathanael Dembele are Songhoy people, and play the musical genre coined as “desert blues”. The band was formed in Bamako, the capital of Mali, where all members had to flee to, in 2012, after their hometown in North Mali was taken.
“They ordered people to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and playing music. Even though I don’t smoke or drink, I love the guitar, so I thought: ‘This isn’t the moment to hang around.’ said Garba Tourè, guitarist, in an interview with the Guardian.
They had little choice but to leave the North and go South. Sharing this fate, the band got together for the love of their land and their music, but also in defiance of Islamist laws, with the intention of keeping that sound alive, not letting oppressive extremists silence them.
Mali is the cradle of blues, the sound that later completely transformed musical culture and style worldwide, and especially in the West. It is no coincidence that in his 7 episode documentary ‘the Blues’, Martin Scorsese chose Mali as a first destination to explore the origins of the musical style. Almost every musical genre can be retraced back to the blues: rock and roll, R&B, Funk, Jazz, Reggae.
Malian culture has music in its veins, and when islamists in Northern Mali banned the music, the music did not stop. It continued underground, or through bands like Songhoy, who did not want it to die, and are now spreading it all over the world.
Aliou Tourè has rhythm bubbling from all of his pores (see below video), when the music starts, he cant stop moving. Garba even jokingly told him during the show that if he continued like this he could die, Aliou turned around, told the audience, laughed and proceeded to dancing euphorically once again. The rest of the band laughed with him, knowing they could not convince him.
Songhoy Blues sing in their native language, faithful to their traditions, and spreading their culture.
“We just wanna show people around the world how rich Mali is musically,” said Toure in an interview with RFI. The country, in fact, has 13 ethnic tribes who all have individual cultural and musical traditions. Seeing their hometown being destroyed and their traditions banned by extremists was perhaps a source of inspiration, to fight death with life keeping the music and the culture alive through their music.
Their international audience can only interpret their lyrics and songs through their rhythm and movement at first. The songs seem joyful, but through the notes there is evident melancholy. The band always stops to explain the meaning of their music, and where the inspiration comes from. It is like waching a contemporary art show and being explained its meaning. Your eyes see differently after that. After Songhoy explains their song, you hear it differently, there is another level added to it+.
Politics and social resistance is intrinsic in the band’s music. Their first album, Music in Exile, was born out of their anger towards their situation and that of their loved ones. Their second album, Resistance, is an ode to their essence. Songs like Soubour, meaning patience, subtly describe their feelings after fleeing. Songs like Dabari (meaning solution) which condemn violence used by Malian police during anti-government protests in the north in July 2016, are a clear example of how this group is using art as a form of activism.The band has often expressed that they talk about issues that are not shown publicly, especially those involving Malian local news, and that their music is overcoming censorship. Nord Mali, in collaboration with UK MC Elf Kid discusses issues of immigration and refugees.
Songhoy Blues are the voices of their forgotten land, and their messages of peace and unity are even more inspiring because they bring their authentic story to the stage. And they do it all by feeling the rhythm and shaking their bodies.