Songhoy Blues releases its ode to Resistance
Songhoy Blues is an exciting young guitar quartet from northern Mali. As they release their second album Résistance, lead singer Aliou Touré talks to RFI about how Bamako's club scene defies ethnic divides and the thrill of getting Iggy Pop on board.
The four musicians are all from Gao in the north. When a jihadi incursion in 2012 forced them into exile in Bamako, they formed Songhoy Blues and have been wowing international audiences ever since with their blend of desert blues, rock, rap and funk.
"Songhoy Blues was born in a difficult situation and when we set up the band we was angry," says lead singer Aliou Touré. "And we’re still angry about what’s going on right now around us."
Angry that the jihadist group banned music in the north, angry that even in Bamako, which has been spared the worst of the violence, it's still difficult to make a living from music. But rather than ranting and raving, Songhoy Blues is showcasing Malian talent.
"We just wanna show people around the world how rich Mali is musically," says Touré. We have 13 different languages and ethnic tribes in Mali from the north to the south: Touarag people, Songhoy people, Dogon people, Bambara, Fulani ... [each with] their own language, culture, music.
"Some is more percussion, some more melodic like the Desert blues. So when you mix all of that kind of music you probably find something like Songhoy Blues," he adds.
Résistance follows the band's 2015 acclaimed album Music in Exile. A leopard takes pride of place on the new album's cover.
"The leopard is one of the animals who resists [the most] Touré explains. "He's kind of protecting us. You can see the four of us in shadow because we need a protection because we're talking about resistance and political things."
The song Dabari (meaning solution) condemns violence used by Malian police during anti-government protests in the north in July 2016.
"Where I was born in Gao [...] soldiers, police, shot people, that shouldn’t happen. They're there to protect people, not to shoot them."
Touré says public TV channels don't show such images. "So we have to talk about that for the people who didn't hear."
But the band also wants to counter the endless "bad news" stories, to help change negative perceptions of Africa and Mali in particular. On the song Bamako they play a grooving tribute to the city and its pulsating nightlife.
"Bamako isn't just a war town, not at all. It's a party town. We just want to show people are outside enjoying life every night."
What's more the night life crosses ethnic divides.
"In the lyrics we say 'people from the north and people from the south are on the same stage, dancing in Bamako in the clubs, even if [they] are not on the same stage of politics'."
On the dancefloor, everything is possible he adds.
"When Songhoy Blues plays in a club in Bamako you can see every single ethnic group in Mali dancing with us, that's the [real] life in Bamako."
The beautiful side of the Sahara
The violence in the north of Mali has given the Sahara a bad press. Billed as a virtual no go zone, the region's people have suffered as a result.
"We just want people to discover that beautiful side of the Sahara. So we need someone very important, a legend, to get involved, to help us to push that message."
The band's label, Transgressive, managed to get no other than rock legend Iggy Pop on board. On Sahara he growls about "going to the Sahara, baby".... [even if] there ain't no pizza" there.
"When [Transgressive] write to him he replied straight away and said yes. We was surprised because it’s not easy to find a legend when you're a young band from Africa, from Mali. But he was very open to do that job with us."
MC Elf Kid from London lends his voice to the song Mali Nord (north Mali), about the region's refugees in Algeria, Mauritania, Burkina, Niger. 'Rise up 'cause Africa's waiting' he raps.
"There are a lot of kids [in refugee camps] who need to go to school, need help, need to be safe. And a lot of young people from refugee camps just want to go to Europe, [they] cross the ocean to find a better life, because [they have] no job, and they're not safe. It’s our responsibility to talk about that."
Touré says their good friend Elf Kid shared this sentiment.
"He also have the same kind of idea of us because he writes a lot about Africa. He shares a lot of our feelings about Africa."
The last track One Colour features a children's choir singing about the importance of feeling at home wherever you are.
"The last thing to say is 'we can... together'. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black or white or yellow. If you watch our planet from a satellite view you will see a tiny blue thing, you’re not gonna see the different colours inside."
All down to Damon Albarn
Songhoy Blues are embarking on a huge North American tour this Autumn. Touré credits Damon Albarn (lead singer with Brit indie band Blur and pioneer of Africa Express) with opening the door for them.
"Damon did a lot for African musicians. If we’re here touring it’s 100% because of him. I can’t imagine where I would be without him. He took the risk to go to Mali with 100 people from all over the world in 2012, exactly when they said to people not to go there. He went there to help artists. It’s a special thing to do."
Songhoy Blues play the Afropunk festival in Paris on 20 July. Follow the band on facebook.