Words by Maria Bakkalapulo
Playing music is enough to get you killed in northern Mali. Jihadists took the region by force in 2012 and imposed sharia, or Islamic law – life there changed dramatically. All entertainment, including music, was outlawed and branded un-Islamic. Western music is viewed as Satanic. Play music in public and you risk whippings, jail time or even worse. That’s why guitarist Garba Touré, vocalist Aliou Touré and bass player Oumar Touré felt they had no choice but to leave their homes near Timbuktu and head south. In Bamako, they were united through music and formed the Afro-blues group, Songhoy Blues.
Music has always been an essential part of Garba’s life. His father Oumar Touré, a musician, played congas with the late guitar legend, Ali Farka Touré. One night like any other, as Garba played his guitar, four men in a pickup truck drove up to his home and took his guitar away – they told him music was no longer allowed. Fortunately, he got his guitar back but it was a clear sign that it was time to leave. Songhoy Blues’ vocalist Aliou’s face grows angry when I ask him why music is seen as a threat. “Maybe it is a question to ask the jihadists because I don’t really know why,” says Aliou “A world without music is like a body without a soul. Everybody loves music, it is impossible to think about a world without music. Even the jihadists like music.” It goes even further, continues bassist, Oumar, “It is not only music that has been banned, it is everything that could be considered entertainment. Also, everything that is coming from outside. Their aim, more than anything is to set up a place where they control everything.”
They hooked up with drummer Nathanael Dembele in Bamako. Nathanael, Garba, Aliou and Oumar came together as a band in exile. Songhoy Blues, named after one of the most prominent and powerful ethnic groups in Mali, started by performing in the clubs and refugee camps of Bamako. In a gesture of solidarity, British musician and former Blur frontman Damon Albarn came to Mali. Songhoy Blues was one of the bands he took under his wing and brought to a wider audience through the Africa Express project, set up to promote artistic collaboration between African and western musicians and to widen the appreciation of African music and culture. Their single, Soubour, a collaboration with guitarist Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, became the lead single on the Africa Express compilation Maison Des Jeunes, an album released in 2013.
Now on tour in Europe, Songhoy Blues are performing music from their debut Music in Exile, release date February 23 on Transgressive Records. By taking their music on the road, Garba and his bandmates hope to gain support for their cause back home. “Everywhere we go we talk about it because we need support for that it is possible and there is hope. Is peace and reconciliation possible? We don’t know,” emphasizes Garba. “We are just telling the truth about what is happening. We are ready to be beheaded if needed because we are not lying, we are telling the truth.” They will also be playing dates in the USA and are featured in the documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile premiering in March at SXSW.
(SIDE NOTE: Touré is an exceptionally common name in Mali – the members of Songhoy blues are unrelated)