Influenced by desert blues legends like Ali Farka Touré (1939 – 2006) or Khaira Arby and growing up listening to tapes of BB King, John Lee Hooker or Jimi Hendrix, the four members of Malian band Songhoy Blues play a raw and energetic mix of blues, rock and R&B on a straightforward guitars, bass and drums formula. Released on Transgressive Records in February 2015 last, their début record Music in Exile reveals a superb collection of infectious and anthemic songs.

Songhoy Blues - Music in Exile (2015)
Songhoy Blues – Music in Exile (2015)

Originally from the Gao and Timbuktu areas of Northern Mali, singer and guitarist Aliou Touré, guitarist Garba Touré, bass guitarist Oumar Touré (no relations) were forced into exile in the southern part of the country when Jihadist militants took over the region in 2012 and outlawed all musical activities. Settling in the Malian capital Bamako, the three musicians met with drummer Nathanaël Dembelé and formed Songhoy Blues in an effort to cope with the enforced displacement and keep their musical culture alive.

The story of Songhoy Blues as a band in exile (and as members of the displaced Songhai people) is symptomatic of the plight of Malian musicians over the last three years.

A major stage for Malian acts, Tuareg or World Music bands and initially launched in 2001, the renowned Festival in the Desert has been on hold since 2013. Since the 2012 rebellion, it has been replaced by a “Cultural Caravan for Peace”, a travelling version of the festival set up in an attempt to connect with dislocated Malian artists and musicians from neighbouring countries.

Released in August 2015, Johanna Schwartz’s documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First – Malian Music in Exile further highlights the consequences of the music ban on Malian cultural life and features the music of Songhoy Blues, along that of other Malian acts such as Khaira Arby or Moussa Sidi.

Regulars on the Bamako club scene, the band’s fortunes changed in late 2013 when they recorded for the Africa Express project spearheaded by Blur’s Damon Albarn and Amadou & Mariam producer Marc-Antoine Moreau. Their song “Soubour” appeared on the Maison des Jeunes compilation, first released digitally in December 2013 and as CD/Vinyl in April 2014.

Championed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner who produced their début album and also contributed to guitar, percussion and organ, Songhoy Blues blend a traditional Songhai heritage with contemporary sounds and themes – peace and reconciliation, environmental issues, patience and resignation and a deep affection for their country. But first and foremost, Music in Exile is instantly captivating with its electrifying grooves and rousing songs.