Music in Exile

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For anyone who has been lucky enough to see Songhoy Blues live, it seemed impossible that the band had no record deal — their sound is so accomplished. For sure, they stand on the shoulders of giants. It sent a shiver down the spine when at their recent Hackney show lead singer Aliou Toure introduced one song saying, “This is for our father…Ali Farka Toure.”

And it is much more than just a name that Aliou shares with the king of the Desert Blues — joyfully, the band’s sound owes much to him.
Songhoy Blues were formed in Bamako after three of the four members fled their home of Gao in northern Mali following civil war, Islamist takeover and subsequent suppression of music. That’s the “Exile” of the album’s title and the energy of the capital is present in their music.

Ali Farka Toure is said to bring together traditional Malian music with the sound of John Lee Hooker (this is certainly an undialectical ethnomusicological shortcut). But if it was the case, then Songhoy Blues proudly channel Jimi Hendrix. However, to just describe their sound in this way is lazy. Live, though less so on the album, their sound almost touches on a contemporary garage rock fuzz sound.

Perhaps this is what people find really exciting, why they have been picked up by Transgressive records, why Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs produced their record. Zinner was a good choice of producer but perhaps the album’s production is a bit too polished — this band has a real edge which needs to remain to the fore.

It’s an album of heartbreaking songs about reconciliation of their country and the desire for peace, pleas for the Malian diaspora to return home and return to work, and revulsion at the idea of a life without music. Above all it’s a celebration of the joy that music can bring and so there is tremendous energy in even some of the saddest songs.

This is one for fans of Malian music from Toumani Diabate to Amadou and Mariam to Tinariwen. Songhoy Blues build on that rich, rich vein. Get your hands on this brilliant album, but give yourself a great night out and see them on tour in the summer. You will be mesmerised by Garba Toure’s stunning guitar, entranced by the rhythms of Nathanael Dembele on drums and Oumar Toure on guitar and you’ll be sure to dance when Aliou tells you to!