Words and photos by Andy Morgan
Let’s talk about education. I don’t mean French homework or triple geometry. I mean education as a blessing, a privilege and a source of pride. I want to talk about education in West Africa and about four young guys from northern Mali. The first, Garba Touré, has a degree in molecular biology. The second, Oumar Touré, has a degree in town planning. The third, Aliou Touré, studied law and the fourth, Nathanael ‘Nat’ Dembélé, is studying drumming and percussion at his local music conservatory.
That all four are in a band called Songhoy Blues and that they’re the bookie’s favourite to become Mali music’s ‘Next Big Thing’ is, you might think, a fact entirely unconnected to their educational accomplishments. But you would be wrong because in Mali, and most of West Africa, music and education are two sides of the same coin.
Most Malians are under 30 years old and only a third can read and write. That doesn’t mean they’re dumb; it just means that the educational system is in a severe mess. So artists involved in the two most popular and grass-roots forms of entertainment – music and theatre – are expected to fill the gap by talking about things that really matter. To be a widely appreciated musician is to talk in an intelligent way about what’s going on in the lives of ordinary people, not to talk about twerking on the dance floor.
“Here in Mali, everybody knows that music is really one of the best ways to raise awareness amongst the civilian population,” says guitarist Garba, “about moving forward, about sending children to school, about polluting the environment.”
“Our fortune is that we’ve all been to school and university,” says bassist Oumar. “There are plenty of bands that don’t have a conscience. We have to exploit our intellectual know-how.”
How many musicians from the UK or the US would readily say that their fortune was the time they spent at school and university? But in Mali, for any young musician, education is an asset. In the old days, it was the griots who were the musical educators. Learning and verbal dexterity were their inheritance and their stock-in-trade. But with the decline in the griot’s influence, others have assumed this role, most recently the ‘conscious’ rappers, people like Mylmo or Master Soumy, who are also the products of higher education and whose popularity is huge. Even the pied-pipers of Touareg assouf or guitar music – like Ibrahim ‘Abaraybone’ and Mohammed ‘Japonais’ from Tinariwen – saw themselves as educators of sorts, not because they had university degrees, but because the whole experience of exile and forced migration gave them insights into the world that they felt duty-bound to pass on. Those ishumar poets formed a kind of revolutionary cultural vanguard and, in their own way, so do Songhoy Blues.
When their new album Music in Exile drops in the UK this month, seasoned ears might wonder what’s so revolutionary about Songhoy Blues’ beefed-up northern Malian riffs, or their blatant debt to the late great Ali Farka Touré. But there’s something vital and fresh about these four young rockers. I sensed it within hours of meeting them back in November 2013, at the launch of the Africa Express album Maison des Jeunes in East London, and my impression deepened over the following months when I spent hours chatting to them over cups of piping hot, bitter-sweet tea up on the roof of the late Ali Farka Touré’s family compound in the Lafiabougou district of Bamako, where Garba has been living for the past few years.
The band were focused in a way that I’d rarely seen in Mali before. They’d built up a following with their own sweat and self-belief in the small clubs and shebeens of Bamako (maquis in the local argot). They’d written at least two or three album’s worth of songs, with lyrics on a wide range of subjects, all relevant and intelligent, ranging from the environment (‘Irganda’), to the need for northern exiles to have patience (‘Soubour’), to patriotism (‘Mali’) and the clash of music and war in their northern desert home (‘Desert Melodie’).
All this graft led to an invitation to perform and record with Africa Express during its exploratory foray to Bamako in October 2013; it was undoubtedly a huge break, the kind you don’t get more than once or twice in a lifetime. Songhoy Blues recorded the song ‘Soubour’ with Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and it subsequently became the ‘hit’ tune on Maison des Jeunes. The band were invited to the launch in London and they landed a management deal with Marc Antoine Moreau, the man who put Amadou & Mariam on the international map.
It could be the script for a West African remake of A Star is Born but none of it would have happened if the main protagonists hadn’t found the courage to beat the blues of exile and start playing music together, rehearsing until their fingers bled, rinsing riffs for four hours non-stop in spit and sawdust bars, cadging studio time to record a song or two, ‘buying the lottery ticket’ in other words.
None of it would have happened but for the recent civil war in northern Mali either; that’s the irony. Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré grew up in the old Gadeye district of central Gao, the historic trading town on the Niger River in the far east of Mali. They weren’t related in any way, but were close friends. Touré is a common but significant name among the Songhai, a sedentary people who live close to the Niger River in eastern Mali and southern Niger – the name Songhai is variously spelt Songhoy, Songhay and Sonrai. One of Aliou’s grandfathers was the imam at the famous pyramidal mausoleum of ‘Askia’ Mohammed Touré, the general who usurped the throne of the Songhai emperor in late the 15th century. His other grandfather was Hafiz Touré, the founder of Takamba Super Onze, one of Gao’s premier musical institutions and chief purveyors of the supremely sensuous takamba dance beat.
Under the reign of Askia Mohammed, the Songhai empire became one of the biggest polities in the history of pre-colonial Africa, stretching all the way from the shores of Lake Chad to the Atlantic Ocean. Since those glory days, the Songhai have become a marginal people, secondary in linguistic, cultural and political terms to the dominant Bamana and Mande people of southern Mali. This decline is the source of a certain amount of grievance and regret but equally of a proud desire to fight the Songhai corner and promote Songhai language, music and society in general. It’s a desire that certainly motivates Songhoy Blues, though not in a caustic or belligerent way.
Aliou and Oumar grew up with one ear tuned in to the traditional holley trance music of the Songhai, with its scritching scratching njarka (one-string fiddle) and raw ‘bluesy’ kurbu (the Songhai word for the Bamana ngoni or lute), and another to the modern electrified Songhai pop of Ali Farka Touré, Khaira Arby, Baba Salah et al. On top of that came hip-hop (Tupac), R’n’B (Craig David), pop (The Beatles) and rock (Jimi Hendrix) – in other words, the standard global playlist of most Malian youth in the late 90s.
For a while Oumar and Aliou played together in a band called Lassaliz who achieved modest success. In 2010 they played at the Festival de la Concorde in Diré, a small town situated on the Niger about 70km south of Timbuktu, and met a young local guitarist by the name of Garba Touré, son of Ali Farka’s long-time percussionist Oumar Touré, and leader of hot local combo the Diré Stars. A friendship was minted down on the river beach where the local youth would hang out, jam and sip their tea. But nothing more than friendship for the time being.
When the latest in a long line of Touareg rebellions hit northern Mali in January 2012, Oumar and Aliou were already dividing their lives between home in Gao and studies in Bamako. So when Gao was subsequently seized by the Touareg nationalist fighters in the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) at the end of April, moving to Bamako seemed like the obvious thing to do. But worry about the families left behind remained constant. Oumar’s brother was a truck driver and trucks were being hijacked by militiamen and bandits. His sister lived in Kidal, the Touareg dominated town to the north of Gao that has been the epicentre of Touareg revolts since in the early 60s. A mortar shell fired from an MNLA canon narrowly missed his family home in Gao.
Garba’s flight to safety down south turns that African version of A Star is Born into something closer to Abderrahmane Sissako’s wonderful film Timbuktu. Despite the widespread fears of rape and pillage, his memories of the MNLA’s arrival in his home of Diré are relatively benign. The MNLA commander, a local man, did his best to ensure that basic security and essential services were maintained. But everything changed when the Islamist militia Ansar Dine rolled up several weeks later and took over. The usual strictures of sharia law were swiftly imposed: no alcohol, no cigarettes, no holding hands, no dancing, hijab and neck-to-toe covering for women, beards and rolled up trousers for men, and, most ominously for Garba, no music.
Wandering around the town one day with his beloved ‘mini’ acoustic guitar, Garba was accosted by a belligerent group of Islamic policemen who threatened to smash his instrument and punish him if they saw him with it again. He knew it was time to leave, so he gathered up his affairs and took a bus up to Timbuktu and then down south to Bamako. At every checkpoint he was terrified that the militiamen would discover the electric guitar that he had stashed on board with his belongings.
Within days of Garba’s arrival in Bamako he hooked up with Aliou and Oumar and the trio played their first concert together at the marriage of Aliou’s cousin in the summer of 2012. Regular weekly residencies at bars soon built up a following, which consisted mainly of northerners in exile. Even though the hours were long, the pay was derisory, and the group had to hire in their own instruments every time they played, the service they provided to the emotional well-being of their fans was inestimable. “The spirit of the audience was one based on nostalgia,” Oumar says, “the nostalgia of meeting up with everyone you know. People who had lost touch would meet up [at our shows]. Someone you thought might have died during the crisis, you’d find him at the bar, in front of Songhoy Blues.”
Then, thanks to local studio owner and producer Barou Diallo, who acted as a kind of mentor to the four young men (local Bamako boy Nat Dembélé had been recruited from the conservatoire to play drums), Songhoy Blues were recommended to Africa Express. Last November they supported Damon Albarn at the Royal Albert Hall, debuted in France at Transmusicales de Rennes and signed a record deal with the happening indie label Transgressive. Not quite overnight success, but breathless and at times bewildering no doubt.
One thing that struck me as particularly refreshing about Songhoy Blues, apart from their get-up-and-go, their open-minded attitude to all kinds of music, their hunger to succeed but not at any cost, was their intelligent, non-partisan analysis of their own country’s problems. They don’t share the more militant Touareg desire for northern Mali to secede and become an independent nation. But they do understand some of the Touareg’s grievances and appreciate the need for a complete overhaul in the way Mali is organised as a country.
“The solution is to remove the causes that create rebellion,” Oumar says. “We need a university in the north. We have to build tarmac’d roads. We need to give people in the north a chance to develop. Peace equals investment. The north must catch up.”
That’s a mere crumb of what these four sharp minds have to offer. Even though their new album doesn’t bust open huge swathes of undiscovered territory in musical terms, it still jabs, probes, rocks and rolls in a way that I haven’t felt a Malian band doing for some time. Apart from anything, it feels good to feel excited about a ‘Next Big Thing’ again, and not a moment too soon either. Prepare to be educated.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2015 (#106) edition