The north of Mali was taken over by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in 2012. Despite their shared initial aim to push out the Malian government, the MNLA fell in to conflict with various Islamist groups. A civil conflict emerged with the Jihadist group Ansar Dine, who begun the imposition of Sharia law which significantly bans music (as well as alcohol, cigarettes and incites violence and discrimination towards minority groups).
The conflict caused many to seek refuge in Southern Mali-the capital of Bamako- including Garba Touré and along with Aliou and Oumar Touré (all unrelated despite their surnames) Songhoy Blues were formed. Songhoy is one of the main ethnicities of Northern Mali and blues refers to their generic desert blues. The band ignited the Bamako underground club circuit bringing together Songhoy and Tuareg fans. Songhoy Blues were shaped in contrast to the civil conflict, demonstrating the escapist and transformative power of music.
In September 2013, the musical collaborative Africa Express (headed by Damon Albarn) recorded a collective album with local musicians in Bamako. Songhoy Blues were successful, and ‘Soubour’ (translating to patience) features as one of the best tracks on ‘Maison Des Jeunes’, released in 2013 alongside artists such as Ghostpoet and Lil Silva. The band are also one of the subjects in the 2015 documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First, focusing on Malian musicians desire to create in a place where music is banned. In the same year, the band released their debut album ‘Music in Exile’ through Transgressive Records. They also stretched into America through Julian Casablancas’ Cult Records partnered with Atlantic.
The band played to Bristol’s Anson Rooms in support of their new album ‘Résistance’, released earlier this year. Produced by Neil Combo (M.I.A / Django Django) the new album is eclectic as the band expand their sound by mixing traditional Malian melodies with tight guitar riffs and funky basslines. ‘Sahara’, one of the album and gig highlights, features Iggy Pop’s languid drawl: ‘We’re going to the Sahara baby… It’s a genuine culture / No Kentucky Fried Chicken’. ‘Sekou Oumaru’ features rootsy guitar and contained drum rhythms, also heard in the brilliant ‘Yersi Yadda’. Introducing ‘Mali Nord’, featuring London Grime MC Elf Kid, frontman Aliou Touré used his platform to speak about the refugee crisis and his statement, ‘No one can do everything, but everyone can do something’, was met with huge applause. A sense of real community and unity characterised Songhoy Blues gig, specifically through their performance of album closer, ‘One Colour’ featuring a children’s choir sing-a-long- ‘We all come together’
Photography: Paul Hudson