At one point a decade ago, the members of Malian rock band Songhoy Blues weren’t allowed to play shows. The ban had nothing to do with pandemic shelter-in-place orders and everything with an Islamist group that had taken over northern parts of the country and imposed sharia law, which included a ban on music.
Guitarists Aliou Touré, Garba Touré and bassist Oumar Touré were forced to immigrate south to the capital city of Bamako. There they recruited drummer Nathanael Dembele. The quartet blends desert rock and Western punk via angular riffs, tight drumming and funky synths. Dembele plays a drumkit rather than traditional African percussion. Unlike many of the recent desert rock bands that have had success in the U.S., all members belong to the Songhai people, rather than Tuaregs, such as Tinariwen and Bombino.
Songhoy Blues were eventually discovered by a filmmaker and featured in the documentary, They Will Have To Kill Us First. That also proved to be the big musical break for Songhoy Blues.
Songhoy Blues gained the attention of Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas (who initially signed them to his imprint on Atlantic Records) and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who produced their 2015 debut, Music In Exile. Two years later they partnered with producer Neil Comber (MIA) on Résistance, and even Iggy Pop joined on a song. In that time, the Songhoy Blues performed at Bonnaroo and Glastonbury festival, became spokespeople for WaterAID and have performed at the UN Climate Action Summit.
For their third album, Optimisme, Songhoy Blues partnered with guitarist-producer Matt Sweeney (Stephen Malkmus, Run the Jewels, Bonnie Prince Billy). Fat Possum released the record last week. The album is the group’s boldest statement yet of choosing positivity and action to create change in their homeland, where they still live.
“Badala,” which translates from the group’s native tongue of Songhai, to “I don’t give a shit,” is written from the perspective of a woman freed from the oppression of the men who dominate Mali. “Fey Fey” (“Division”) is about the literal divide between north and south Mali, which is harming both sides. “Assadja” (“Warrior”) is an ode to the working class trying to build a life and families.
The group addresses the seduction of Mali natives to the Western world in “Bon Bon” (French for “candy”), materialism on “Dounia” (Songhai for “life”), the lies of politicians on “Kouma” (“speech” in Bambara, the primary language of Mali) and the Transatlantic slave trade on “Korfo” (Songhai for “chains”).
Songhoy Blues even sing in English for the first time on “Worry,” about not giving up the fight for freedom and equality during turbulent times. “Nothing’s come for free/ When you get it free/ you will lose it freely,” the band sings. “Let your hope come from fight/ And go through your darkness/ You’ll find your light.”
Then there’s “Barre” (Songhai for change) which literally calls on the youth of Mali to step up and defeat corruption in government—a message considered dangerous in parts of the country, which experienced a coup d’état in August.
We exchanged an email with guitarist Garba Touré, who was in the Bamako studio, about Optimisme, how south Mali has fared in the COVID-19 pandemic and the band’s hopes for its homeland.
RIFF: What has quarantine during the pandemic been like in Bamako? What rules are or were being requested or enforced?
Garba Touré: The quarantine here in Bamako was hard. They applied restriction measures that we were not used to, and basically stopped all musical activity, which really paralyzed the cultural sectors. We were asked to close the performance halls and keep a distance from each other and wash our hands every 15 or 30 minutes. But now, things are opening again. Even concerts have resumed.
Why did the band flee for the south, and Bamako in particular?
In Mali all the big state structures are in Bamako, such as the airport; the embassies are in Bamako for passport purposes, etc., so now it works better for us. But the main reason is since 2012 we can be here and play our music in peace, because in the north and the center of the country, there are terrorist organizations that forbid activities such as music.
Are your families still living in the north?
We have part of our family in Bamako and another part in the North because life is expensive in Bamako, so we can’t all stay here!
You started by singing about the plight of the people of Mali, where, sadly, injustice and corruption has been an issue for a long time. How do these concepts and messages transfer to the Western world, where, especially in the U.K. and the U.S., human rights are under attack now more than they have been in generations?
Of course these questions have been sung for a long time, but … we are trying to make the message heard as loud as possible because we have had the chance to go to large countries around the world where human rights are more respected than at home. We are counting on the media and the West to work with us and help us find solutions for our different people.
How did you get to work with producer Matt Sweeney? Who put you in touch, and what did he bring to the table as you were recording this fantastic album?
Matt Sweeney is a great guy we met in New York on an American tour. Since then, we have got to know each other and discovered that he is a very talented man in the field of music, and he already knew the people from our American label, called Fat Possum. We liked so much his way of working in the studio that we invited him to work with us on our new album, where he amazed us with his know-how. He brought us a lot of ideas and helped us to fix a lot of the songs.
You’ve worked with a different producer for each of the three records. Why did you jump around like that?
I think this is a good thing because people don’t have the same experience or the same inspirations, let alone the same influences. I think it is good to have a little of everyone in order to have a lot. From Nick Zinner to Neil Comber, who worked on Résistance, to Matt Sweeney, I think we learned a lot from them all. We learned simplicity. It takes wisdom to come up with something good.
Desert rockers from Africa have had increasing levels of success in the U.S., but out of everyone I’ve heard, you do the most remarkable job of blending your music with Western rock. If someone told me that you were playing with Franz Ferdinand on “Pour Toi,” I’d believe you. Is that important to you to incorporate that sort of stuff?
Well, I think that all African rock bands have the same dynamism, just sometimes they have different visions. It’s important for us to continue to make an open music where everybody can find their taste, and it’s [an] honor if great Western musicians are on the same wavelength with our rhythms, such as Franz Ferdinand or Iggy Pop and others.
Many of the songs preach positive change. “Barre” seems to be more of a literal call to arms. Is that what it is?
Yes, in many of our songs we plead for positive change because we were born and grew up in corrupt systems. This is the title of this song where we index the leaders of the south because in our country, power is based only in the south, and we hope that our messages will be heard.
These songs are very broad-reaching, Do any of them include stories of yourselves or your families? Take “Badala,” for example. It’s a message that applies to everyone, but is it about someone?
Hahahahahahahaha. Indeed “Badala” is a general story that we wrote, set in our country where freedom and progress of women feels nonexistent sometimes. So it is a reminder that we are dedicated to fight and is our way of supporting women in their struggles for freedom and equality.
What does music mean to the people of Mali, and what was it like to have others try to take it away?
For us, music is the primary channel of communication, because it is through music that we can get the message across—even at the highest level, far beyond the boundaries of our conflicts or celebrations or ceremonies.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.