The banned band from Mali

prerna singh | Updated on November 28, 2014 Published on November 28, 2014

Out of Africa: The Songhoy Blues (from left) Oumar Touré, Aliou Touré, NathanaelDembélé and Garba Touré

Bonding over the music they fled their country for, the Songhoy Blues are now playing at an NH7 Weekender gig near you

When armed Islamists took over northern Mali in early 2012, among the things they banned was music. The penalty for playing or listening to music ranged from a public whipping to chopped hands. Among those who fled the country were guitarist Garba Touré, bass player Oumar Touré and singer Aliou Touré — the three are not related, Touré being a common surname in Mali, but all three belong to the Songhoy people. They met in Bamako in the south of Mali, bonded over their love for music, specifically the Desert Blues they played, and Songhoy Blues was born. Subsequently, they met drummer Nathanael Dembélé, and the band was complete. They hit the big time when they were discovered by musical talent scouts African Express. The Songhoy boys are currently playing at the Bacardi NH7 Weekenders across India. BLink caught up with them.

Did you know each other before you formed a band?

We were friends, yes. Oumar is from Gao, like Aliou, and Garba is from Timbuktu. Garba and Oumar knew each other. But we all got together in Bamako, in 2012, following the (political) issue in north Mali. A friend of ours was getting married, and we decided to get together and play at the wedding. It worked really well — we played without a repertoire, but it was fabulous. The next day, we got together as a band.

Did you run away from northern Mali as you couldn’t listen to or play music there?

An artist for whom music is banned is like a body without a soul. Before we moved to Bamako, playing, and even living, under the rule of the Islamic militants in Timbuktu had become impossible. We had never imagined that one day we could be forbidden from playing music — music is universal, there’s no one on earth who doesn’t listen to music!

Does the underground music culture make you different from musicians elsewhere in the world?

No, but our music, which is born of our roots and our culture, perhaps does. In Mali, we mostly enjoy Takamba music — it’s the first music a Songhoy child listens to, it’s so purely Songhoy. Nowadays, younger people listen to occidental music too, but the older generation still enjoys the Takamba, or famous northern artists like Ali Farka Touré and Ibrahim Dicko.

What are the other influences on your music?

Ali Farka Touré and Jimi Hendrix.

Are you familiar with Indian music?

We’ve checked the line-up at the festival but, to be honest, we don’t know much about any of the other bands. This is turning out to be quite a discovery for us.

How does it feel to be in India?

Amazing! India is all over African television, so getting a chance to actually be here is fabulous. It’s very good for a band like us to get an opportunity to play here; it’s a different audience but they’re definitely dancing to Songhoy Blues.

How were you discovered by the scouts of African Express?

We were at a friend’s place, recording, and he told us about this project that was coming to town — somebody called Marc Antoine was in Bamako to scout for a band. He suggested we contact him. Marc Antoine introduced us to Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Working with Nick was a fabulous experience.

Who would you pick for a dream collaboration?

We can’t say, but we were very happy to meet Damon Albarn and work with Nick Zinner.

You’ve collaborated with an American. You’ve played in London. And now you’re in India. How different were the experiences?

Discovering India is amazing, and to get the opportunity to play here, too. What we see here is a very different audience. We toured the UK last July, and the big difference we found was how the shows were timed — before, during and after shows. In Mali, we played four-hour sets, but in Europe we had to cater to the time before and after the show as well. But we’re really looking forward to dealing with the many different cultures and different ways of doing things around the world.

Which is your dream venue?

We can’t really name one place, you know. After India, we go back to Europe for a 20-date tour and play at some big festivals, as also with Julian Casablancas from The Strokes. We hope to get the chance to travel all over the world and play our music to the planet.

Are you looking forward to returning to northern Mali and establishing yourselves as musicians there?

Yes, of course — we haven’t played there since we left.

(Prerna Singh is a freelance writer)

Published on November 28, 2014
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