Posts Tagged ‘songhoy blues’

Songhoy Blues: Songhai Stars

Posted on May 12th, 2016 in Features, Recent posts by .


Words and photos by Andy Morgan

Songhoy Blues won the Newcomer category in the Songlines Music Awards 2016. Hailed last year as ‘Mali’s Next Big Thing’, the young band have continued to ride on a much-deserved wave of success.

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.

Songhoy-Blues-Andy-Morgan-Free2Most 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

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Songlines Music Awards 2016: The Winners

Posted on May 4th, 2016 in Features, News, Recent posts by .

Songlines Music Awards 2016


We’re delighted to announce the winners of the eighth Songlines Music Awards which aim to put a much-deserved spotlight on some incredibly talented artists from around the world.

This year we’ve shaken up our awards, so as well as our usual Best Artist and Best Group awards – as voted by Songlines readers – we have five new geographical awards based on our reviews sections, as well as the World Pioneer and Newcomer Awards chosen by our editorial team.

Join us on October 3 at the Barbican in London for this year’s Songlines Music Awards Winners’ Concert, featuring performances by Mariza, Debashish Bhattacharya and others still to be announced. Tickets go on general sale at 10am on Friday (For more details visit or call 020 7638 8891

Hear editor-in-chief Simon Broughton introducing and playing music from all of this year’s winners, on the Songlines podcast, available as a free download on iTunes.

 Words by Nigel Williamson

Best Artist
(Mundo on Parlophone)

Songlines Music Awards Mariza

Back after a five-year recording hiatus, Mariza returned in 2015 with an album that was not so much a reinvention as a bold expansion of her role as fado’s foremost global ambassador. Adding sparkling pop ballads and subtle washes of electronica to her traditional roots, Mundo was an unalloyed triumph, her artistry hitting dynamic new heights and her voice expressing every emotional nuance, whether singing a gentle and intimate lullaby for her young son or melodramatically letting rip on the high notes with the force of an operatic diva.

Sympathetically helmed by the Spanish world music producer Javier Limón – whose previous credits include Buika and Anoushka Shankar – it’s an album that she describes as “the most personal I’ve ever made” and an invitation into her most private world. “I didn’t want any effects on my voice,” she told Songlines. “I wanted people to feel I was singing just next to their ear, like I’m right beside them, each listener as my solo audience.” Now in her early 40s, she emerges not only as the finest fado singer of her generation, but one of the world’s most charismatic artists, bridging traditional and popular forms in transcendental style.


Best Group
Africa Express (Terry Rileyʼs In C Mali on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Terry Riley Africa Express

The notion of unleashing a group of West African musicians playing traditional instruments on the music of the American composer Terry Riley was an audacious piece of lateral thinking and arguably the most satisfying project yet to emerge under the banner of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. Dispensing with the conceptual score and allowing the Malian musicians to interpret German conductor André de Ridder’s violin notations as they saw fit, the results were revelatory as centuries of African trance ritual add a warm looseness to Riley’s minimalist 60s composition. Albarn, Brian Eno and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs represent the Western contingent but it’s the African cohort on kalimba, balafon, kamelengoni and kora who provide the magic and fill the work with light and space as flutes, strings and chiming guitars join the African percussion as the ensemble reach the most thrilling of climaxes.

Although it sounds like no other version of Riley’s work, it remains true to its spirit as shifting polyrhythms and tonal and timbral changes create a sense of constant evolution, even though the same base note repeats insistently throughout the performance. Riley himself was delighted with the result, enthusing that it sounded as if his composition was “taking flight with the soul of Africa.”


Songhoy Blues (Music in Exile on Transgressive Records)

Songlines Music Awards Songhoy Blues

We have the armed jihadists who banned music when they took control of northern Mali in 2012 to thank for the existence of Songhoy Blues. Guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – realised it wasn’t going to be a safe or pleasant thing to hang around Timbuktu, and like thousands of other refugees, he grabbed a bag and his guitar and boarded the first bus to Bamako. There he formed Songhoy Blues with fellow exiles Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, subsequently joined by drummer Nathanael Dembélé.

Their first recording with American guitarist-producer Nick Zinner was trailed on the Africa Express compilation Maison des Jeunes, to which they contributed the standout track. Music in Exile, their full-length debut – again produced by Zinner, with assistance from their French manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, fully lives up to their promise as the new, rocking sound of Mali, dramatically propelling traditional African desert blues into a 21st-century urban setting. It earned them the front cover of Songlines, but the dynamic rock’n’roll heft of the recording also crossed over to receive rave reviews in rock mags such as NME, Uncut and Mojo.


Africa & Middle East
Seckou Keita (22 Strings on ARC Music)

Songlines Music Awards Seckou Keita

Having won the Cross-Cultural Collaboration award in the 2014 Songlines Music Awards for his album with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, the Senegalese-born but UK-based kora player Seckou Keita picks up another richly deserved award for 22 Strings, a mostly instrumental set of exquisite solo kora playing, full of meditative grace, sublime poise and consummate elegance and which combines traditional tunes with his own compositions. Born into a griot family in Casamance in southern Senegal in 1978 but now living in England, he started playing the kora when he was seven and after backing various other acts including Baka Beyond, he released his debut solo album in 2000.

After his current solo kora album, his next project will find him returning to the collaborative path on an album of duets with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. “Everything in music has to be honest, and the deeper meanings of the songs and melodies must be preserved,” he says. “This is why it’s important that collaborations should be right for the music. There are connections between, say, Cuban and Indian and Welsh sounds and the repertoire of the kora. They can be explored without losing the distinct flavours of the different traditions and styles.”


Lila Downs (Balas y Chocolate on Sony Music)

Songlines Music Awards Lila Downs

Born in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the daughter of a Mixtec Indian mother and an American university professor, Lila Downs grew up with a multicultural vision drawn from both sides of the Rio Grande. Her nine studio albums over the course of a 22-year career have defied categorisation, weaving traditional Mexican and native Mesoamerican music with blues, jazz, cumbia, rock and finding her singing in Spanish, English and various native tongues.

Inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, her current release Balas y Chocolate is a sizzling, gutsy, joy-giving dance album, as martial beats, rousing choruses, mariachi moods and agit-pop raps lend a festive brio. Her expressive, multi-octave voice arcs impressively from airborne falsetto to sultry contralto as she sings about subjects ranging the erosion of civil rights to political corruption, while the title-track is dedicated to migrant children. “I’m an artist and not a politician,” she says. “But music offers us the ability at desperate moments to feel the emotion that we haven’t been able to express.” Superlative sax, accordion and brass accompaniment provides a robust soundbed with stirring cameos from guest vocalists Colombian superstar Juanes and Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel as additional bonuses. Lila Downs features on the cover of the new issue (June, #118).


Asia & South Pacific
Debashish Bhattacharya (Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn on Riverboat Records)

Songlines Music Awards Debashish

The pioneering Indian slide guitarist has been playing for more than half a century; his father gave him a Hawaiian lap steel guitar at the age of three. By the age of 15 he had designed his own Hindustani version of the slide guitar, which he called the chaturangui. He’s since created the 14-string gandharvi and the anand, a four-string lap steel ukulele, to forge what he calls “the Trinity of Guitars” and with which he has created a new instrumental language for traditional Indian music.

His 2009 album Calcutta Chronicles earned a Grammy nomination and he’s recorded collaborative discs with the late Bob Brozman and with John McLaughlin. On Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn he traces a musical journey from dawn to dusk. As emotionally compelling as it is technically impressive, his creative virtuosity makes it easy to forget that he’s playing a guitar rather than a more traditional Indian stringed instrument. “The music I play is universal, rooted deep in thousands of years of tradition,” he says. “It has the essence of peace, harmony and bliss. But it’s essentially modern, engulfing the mood of reggae, hip-hop, rock, jazz and blues. That’s what my music is all about.”


Sam Lee (The Fade in Time on Nest Collective Records)

Songlines Music Awards Sam Lee

Born in North London to Jewish parents, after studying at Chelsea art college and working as a burlesque dancer, Lee discovered the arcane but resonant heritage of the UK and Ireland’s Gypsy culture and then ‘went native,’ spending several years collecting and learning songs and ballads from Traveller and Gypsy communities all over the UK and Ireland. He also picked up the lilting vocal style of Gypsy song and the fruits of his research were heard on his 2012 debut album Ground of its Own, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize.

On The Fade in Time he gives the stories and melodies he collected an ambitious and imaginatively modern platform, backed by a band that comprises violin, cello, piano, percussion and Japanese koto (zither), and adding everything from Bollywood beats and Polynesian textures to the reek and smoke of our own island’s living traditions. “There’s a difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,” he says. “I decided I’d throw flames on what tradition is left out there. I’m a tree-climber and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.”


Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal (Musique de Nuit on No Format!)

Songlines Music Awards Ballake Sissoko Vincent Segal

Malian kora maestro Sissoko and the French cellist Segal were first heard playing together on 2009’s exquisite Chamber Music. Their second album of stringed magic, Musique de Nuit, sparkles with an even greater lustre, drawing organically on the twin heritages of West African oral tradition and European conservatoire classicism, spiced by the innate musical curiosity and openness of two musicians who appear to respond almost telepathically to each other. That’s hardly surprising as between the two discs they toured the world, playing more than 200 concerts as a duo and refining and developing their collaboration in countless hours spent jamming, experimenting and improvising. “We wanted to go further with the second record,” Sissoko told Songlines. “The magic of the first album lay in the meeting itself and our coming together. We didn’t know how it was going to go. This record has come out of our shared experience since then, although it’s also very improvisational and natural.” Mostly recorded under the stars on Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, the setting lends an exotic ambience to an album of subtle arrangements and inventive improvisational interplay that feels as fresh as it is timeless.


World Pioneer Award
Chris Blackwell

Songlines Music Awards Chris Blackwell

Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for having discovered and signed Jethro Tull, Free, Roxy Music, Grace Jones and U2 among numerous other rock legends. But his citation also described him as ‘the person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music’ and it is for his incalculable contribution to promoting Jamaican and African artists for which he is honoured here. He launched Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 and was soon exporting early ska recordings to the UK, topping the charts in 1964 with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, arguably the first ‘world music’ crossover hit.

His signing of Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973 was a seminal moment and he then went on to introduce Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé to an international audience. After selling Island he established the Mango and Palm Pictures imprints with a stellar roster that included Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo. Blackwell’s 80th birthday next year is certain to prompt a host of industry tributes that will inevitably concentrate on his rock’n’roll triumphs –hence our decision to recognise separately his immense contribution to world music by making him the inaugural recipient of the Songlines World Pioneer Award.


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Win one of five pairs of tickets to Songhoy Blues at the Roundhouse

Posted on March 4th, 2016 in Live, News, Recent posts by .

Songhoy Blues

Join us for a celebration of Malian music and beyond on May 21, when Songhoy Blues and special guest Fatoumata Diawara will take to the stage at London’s iconic Roundhouse.

It has been a monumental rise for Malian quartet Songhoy Blues – from the raucous, defiant atmosphere of Bamako’s club circuit, to this, their biggest ever UK headline show.

Their appearance on 2013’s Maison des Jeunes album as part of the Africa Express collective was where the group’s ‘beefed-up’ Ali Farka Touré-esque riffs and an anthemic chunky desert-blues groove first caught the Western ear. Yet their documented ascent in Johanna Schwartz’s They Will Have to Kill Us First film and 2015 debut album Mali in Exile also highlighted the band’s intelligent, non-partisan view of Mali’s ongoing problems and the mission they were on – a desire for reconciliation.

We have five pairs of tickets to give away to the concert. Simply fill in the form below, or click here to enter.

Visit to find out more.


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Songhoy Blues / They Will Have to Kill Us First at Sheffield University, February 26

Posted on February 3rd, 2016 in Live, News, Recent posts by .

Capture d’écran 2014-12-04 à 22.08.59

Sheffield University to host Songhoy Blues and a screening of the They Will Have to Kill Us First documentary on February 26

Building on from a successful 2015 in which they released their critically acclaimed debut Music in Exile and received a nomination for Best New Act at the Q Awards, Malian desert blues band Songhoy Blues are to perform in the Students Union Auditorium of Sheffield University – courtesy of TalkingGigs. The event will be the perfect opportunity to watch the band in action, as they discuss their culture and musical influences and perform unplugged renditions of their songs.

The band were one of the principal subjects in Johanna Schwartz’s They Will Have to Kill Us First, which documented the unfortunate circumstances musicians suffered during the imposition of Sharia law in Northern Mali in 2012. Songhoy Blues’ performance will be preceded by a screening of the documentary; the band will be talking with the film’s co-writer Andy Morgan.

The event starts at 7:00pm with doors opening at 6:30pm. Tickets are priced at £13 (£8 concessions for under 23-year-olds). A booking fee of £1.50 applies for each transaction.

For tickets and more information, visit Ticket Source, or call 07955 047387.

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