Some bands like to keep politics out of their mouths.
Too complicated, they say. Muddies the waters. Detracts from The Art. Narrows their target market.
For Songhoy Blues, there’s never been the option of choice. Political exiles from their homeland in northern Mali, they’re a band forged in defiance and protest – their very existence a ‘fuck you’ to a country that banned music.
They began in a rebellion, sparked when the Tourag rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) overthrew the government and took control of the north of Mali. MNLA, in turn, were overthrown by a jihadist group who banned alcohol, cigarettes, and women talking.
Fleeing their homes in the North, the three founding members (Garba, Aliou and Oumar Toure, unrelated in spite of the shared surname) sought refuge in Bamako and rebellion through song. A way to keep the traditions and melodies of their people alive. And so Songhoy Blues was born.
Swept aboard Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, they found a platform to an international audience, the life-affirming exuberance of their live performances a tonic to those lucky enough to bear witness.
‘Optimisme’, their third record, is testament to both their activist grit and faith in joy. It’s potent, ferocious and fizzing with life, desert-blues licks winding serpentine through the amplified bombast of the classic rock they grew up idolizing. (And anyone jaded or disillusioned by the possibilities of guitar music would do well to listen to the magic they wring from theirs).
Its release follows another turbulent political year in their country, as the military overthrew the government, arresting the prime minister and President. Even this interview was almost derailed. A phone interview thwarted by mobile reception, it emerged that the government were interfering with communications channels, fearful of cheating in student exams.
Garba Toure, guitarist and songwriter, answered questions over email, but the statements of Songhoy’s music stand up entirely alone: of music as a mechanism for unity, a tool to help us unite and move – even in what can feel like the most unforgiving of our hours.
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We’re here to discuss ‘Optimisme’, your third record. The title’s a powerful statement in times like these. Where’s the good feeling coming from?
It’s this very moment that invites us to be optimistic. Better late than never. We have to be sure that the best will eventually appear. The intention of this record, as always with Songhoy Blues, is to evoke the subjects that are close to our hearts. We put the lyrics on our website so people can read the texts.
This album’s a real blend of Malian guitar and desert blues you’re known for with more Western influences – hard rock on Badala, disco on Pour Toi. What were you listening to to inspire this?
Yes, in Mali there is a great musical diversity and given our many travels around the world, we’ve discovered several musical styles and different music groups in blues, rock and others. It has really affected our music lately. There are not particular artists that informed these songs, just a general expanded interest in styles.
When did you start recording? What was the writing process?
It was really a long process all along the way. We were writing other songs, we were writing in Mali and all over the world. ‘Badala’ (which means “I don’t care”) came to our mind in New Jersey for the first time when we were getting together at moments of pleasure. While having fun, we fell on rhythms that we hold dear to our hearts from where we wrote a song, La Dessu.
It’s a multilingual record. Why do you choose to dip in and out of languages?
We always try to sing in as many languages as possible. The languages we speak every day are Songhoy, Bambara, French, and English – it’s to try to have a more universal aspect of our music.
Are you still based in Mali?
We are all based in Bamako (the capital) because the north (where Timbuktu is, and where we originate from) is really not stable at the moment to stay there with our various current activities. There are extremists who still live in the north.
You’re political exiles following the MNLA uprising. Do you believe music is a tool of active resistance?
Yes, for us music is one of the best weapons to conquer certain fundamentalist ideologies, as it has been for centuries in our country. It is through music that we solve many situations, as well as denouncing bad systems. Inviting people to mutual respect, social cohesion and so on. It is really a means with which we can pass on information quickly and efficiently to win and convince.
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Do you consider your music to be political activism/protest music?
It is true that we have always raised political issues that worry us in our system of governance, but we cannot take up these issues alone, which is why we are committed to making committed music by denouncing and inviting young people to wake up, and that it is our right to acclaim our rights for 60 years. Politicians have been mismanaging our countries.
How badly they run them, in Mali and a little bit everywhere in Africa, so for us it is time for the youth to wake up, because change is change and we need it. We will be able to bring it about and it is time for the awakening of consciences now everywhere in Africa.
What’s your take on the SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a Nigerian Police Force unit) violence against civilian protesters in Nigeria?
Our point of view on violence throughout the world is that we invite people to try to live together in this common family which is the world. Ethnic or racial violence has never contributed to anything positive and people must understand that we are born to live together. These ideas of division or superiority no longer belong to our generation – these practices are really over.
You’ve played some streamed online gigs and have more in the pipeline. How do they feel, to such a famous live band? Do you still feel the same connection to the audience?
Yes, we’ve done a lot of online live shows with Afropunk, KEXP, and many others. We miss the warmth of the audience because for us a concert includes many details such as applause, shouting, and many other exchanges before and after a concert. I would even say that it’s a very good thing. It’s the audience that helps us to release so much energy on stage.
What would you say to bands or musicians feeling trapped in the current time/political landscape?
Musicians trapped by the political landscape are just victims of moral constipation. I will tell them to stay close to the people because only this side remains. We cannot acclaim the people who divide us or block the development of our different nations.
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‘Optimisme’ is out now.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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