The year is 2012. A radical Islamist group overruns northern Mali and establishes sharia law, prohibiting drinking and smoking as well as playing or possessing musical instruments. Guitarist Garba Touré packs his bags and leaves Timbuktu to seek refuge in the capital, Bamako. There he meets singer Aliou Touré, bass player Oumar Touré and percussionist Nathanael Dembélé. Although not related – Touré is the most common surname in Mali – they share the same Songhai origins and play desert blues for a refugee community that, like them, had to leave the northern part of the country. Songhoy Blues is born.
September 2013. As part of the Africa Express project initiated by Blur singer Damon Albarn, Songhoy Blues records a track with the guitarist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Nick Zinner. “Soubour” (Patience) comes out on the Africa Express compilation and becomes such a hit that Zinner produces their first album, Music in Exile, distributed in North America in 2015.
The four companions leave their small room in Bamako and head out to conquer western stages. From London to New York, not to mention Byron, Australia, spectators discover Malian rock and roll. Songhoy Blues is acclaimed by critics and transcends the limits of world music. They also appear in the documentary film “They will have to kill us first,” recounting the resistance of Malian musicians to extremist groups.
Appropriately, Résistance is the title of the second Songhoy Blues album, recorded in 2017 in London. The traditional influences of desert blues are still there, but the guitars are even more energetic, and the orchestration includes brass and keyboard instruments together with the collaboration of various western artists, among them Iggy Pop (“Sahara”), London grime MC Elf Kid (“Mali North”) and American violinist William Harvey (“Hometown”). The album, with a clearly political message, ends with a children’s choir (“One colour”). Singer Aliou explains that we have to learn from children, who play together without worrying about their origins or their religion. “Together, we can,” they sing, recalling another political message that, already, sometimes seems far away.