It is always amazing to stumble upon a band that truly epitomises the word original. We tend to throw around the word ‘refreshing’, and only see how meaningless it is when you discover a band that redefines the very word. Songhoy Blues is that unique band. They have been around since 2012, and are unlikely to be imitated anytime soon.
Everyone loves an underdog story. Here in South Africa we are familiar with the competitive nature of the music industry, and how difficult it is to actually make it as a local artist. Now throw in civilian unrest and war, armed rebels and a lifetime of struggle in Mali, and appreciate that Songhoy Blues actually exists. The band members, originally from Timbuktu, were formed in Bamako, Mali’s capital. They were forced to leave their homes after the jihadist group, Ansar Dine, banned cigarettes, alcohol and most importantly music. The band, made up of Garba Touré, Aliou Touré, Oumar Touré and Nathanael Dembélé, was formed as a tribute to the sounds of the north, to keep the memory of their origins and people alive. Despite sharing the same surname, the members are not related. In Mali, the surname ‘Touré’ is as common as ‘Smith’. Their debut album, aptly titled “Music In Exile”, was released last year, ironically a few months before one of their main influences, B.B. King, passed away. Their song Sekou Oumarou feels like the Malian tribute to King’s signature sound.
‘Songhay’ refers to people of West Africa who live mainly in Niger and Mali, and is the name of their language, making up about 2 million speakers. The band’s ethnicity and history of suffering makes the blues a likely choice. Blending a contemporary rock sound, reminiscent of old-school stripped-down Jimi Hendrix with bluesy undercurrents, the band is refreshing in the truest sense. Their genre is identified as desert punk/ blues which is quite possibly one of the best names for a genre I have ever heard. Each song allows the vocals to shine through, with the accompanying instruments taking a backseat to the power of the lyrics. What is so enjoyable about the album is that the two most dominating sounds – American rock ‘n roll and Malian traditional flare – are so fine-tuned on their own, but when combined, opens the door to a whole new sound entirely. The songs Irganda and Al Hassidi Terei are the fusion of two cultures, drawing the best elements from each.
As their website states, the songs are a recognition of the home-grown song and dance of Mali, and a homage to iconic West African guitar heroes. Despite being produced by Nick Zinner and Marc-Antoine Moreau, the debut album is free of the mass-produced sound that sometimes accompanies collaborations with big-wig musos. Their song Soubour is their most famous, as it features Zinner, of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The song puts the band at centre stage, as Zinner allows his brilliant riftfs to complement rather than overshadow their unique sound.
After giving the album a listen, one has to wonder about all the undiscovered musicians who are too limited by their situation to be heard. Songhoy Blues is the success story of coping with struggle and overcoming the odds, and demonstrating exactly how to blend two genres into an iconic album.
“Music In Exile” is available on iTunes.