When armed Islamic extremists took control of his hometown of Diré in Northern Mali and banned all music, guitarist Garba Touré packed his bags and headed south.
After arriving in the capital of Bamako, Garba and two musician friends who’d also fled the north—singer & guitarist Aliou Touré and bassist Oumar Touré— decided they couldn’t let this displacement define their lives. Driven by a desire to continue Northern Mali’s musical tradition, they recruited drummer Nathanael Dembélé, and formed Songhoy Blues.
The band started out playing weddings, friends’ events, and small music bars called maquis. Through some luck and word of mouth, they got on the radar of producer Marc-Antoine Moreau, who asked them to record for the Africa Express ‘Maison Des Jeunes‘ album alongside several other Malian bands.
Fast forward a couple of years and Songhoy Blues are the first African act signed by Atlantic Records in over 40 years. Their debut album, ‘Music In Exile,’ was produced by Moreau and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
Songhoy Blues’ story is featured in the newly released documentary film ‘They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile,’ which follows Malian musicians as they resist the cultural repression sweeping through their nation.
We caught up with the band in New York City, where they’ve been doing press for the film for the past week.
A lot of the experiences of the extremist takeover of 2012 get covered in They Will Have To Kill Us First, but I wanted to ask if you had any personal experiences from that time you could share?
Garba Touré: In 2015, I went back to my hometown of Diré and just after lunch time there was an attack by the CMA [Coordination of Movements for Azawad]—the new separatist group. Five pickups full of soldiers came. Basically, the Malian army came and counter attacked and there was an hour-long gun battle.
We were in our house and there was heavy arm fire, like artillery fire—when the shells landed you could feel the ground trembling. I was there with my mother, cousins, brothers and sisters in the house.
There was another guy who was in the founding lineup of Songhoy Blues whose father very recently was going back home to Timbuktu. He’d just gone past Douentza, a town where you leave the main road to Timbuktu, and was sprayed by gunfire and he died. We have no idea who these people who fired on him were or what group they belonged to. They were probably just bandits. The conflict’s still very much alive.
Aliou Touré performing at the They Will Have To Kill Us First U.S. premiere in NYC. Photo: Ginny Suss for Okayafrica.
Where did you write the songs for Music In Exile?
Aliou Touré: They were all written in Bamako when we left the north. Each one of the songs had a vague existence before they got there, each one of the members brought songs we’d been working on. When the group got together the the songs started crystallizing and becoming what they are in the album.
What do you think when you hear that you’re the first African band signed to a major label like Atlantic Records in decades?
Oumar Touré: Wow [laughs]. It’s a great emotional boost. It’s exciting. But it’s also a massive challenge to rise to the occasion and be worthy of their attention. We’re very conscious of the need to get better and better, and work hard.
We’re very ambitious for what we’d like to do. That said, it’s also great for Mali. Because this is Malian music that is being honored. We’re young Malians. There have been loads of great Malian musicians that have been out but none of them have been chosen by Atlantic. It happened to us, so it’s great for us but it’s great for Mali too.
Do you find any differences between how your music is received in Mali and abroad?
AT: Our ideology back at home is to make Malian music young again. To give it the energy of youth, at the same time keeping the respect and the connection with the tradition, from which everything emanates.
When we play in Mali, we have a lot of people who recognize the shape of our music—recognize the rhythms and the melodies—but who are excited, and even upset, by the sonic color we’re giving it.
When we play abroad, people appreciate our efforts to communicate in the sense of creating a type of music that can be appreciated internationally, because it has that feel of rock music. People don’t find it a barrier. It’s a language that they already partly understand, except that we’re giving it a new twist.
Locally we’re bringing a new young energy to Malian music and internationally we’re bringing Malian tradition into rock music.
Songhoy Blues “Al Hassidi Terei” music video.
Nathanael Dembélé: In Mali, we were playing these small bars and built a cult following, mostly of people who come from the north. Then we went to England and had an incredible boost which is kind of happening now in the States.
Meanwhile, back at home we’re still playing to little groups of people at the maquis, which are small drinking and music joints in Bamako. Radio stations and TV tend to deal with Southern music rather than Northern music, and they haven’t caught up to us yet. So we have all the work to do back in Mali.
How did you meet and end up working on your debut album with Nick Zinner and Marc-Antoine Moreau?
GT: We had already been together for a year playing at the maquis. We were playing a mixture of our own stuff and covers, but we wanted to move to the next stage and do an album.
We got in touch with our uncle, well he’s not really our uncle but more of a mentor, called Barou Diallo. He’s a sound engineer, he’s got a studio and he gives lessons at the Maison des Jeunes youth center. He told us this guy Marc-Antoine Moreau is coming to basically audition bands for a big meeting with an organization called Africa Express.
We were chosen out of 50 bands or so and were invited to meet Damon Albarn, Nick Zinner, and many other musicians who came from the UK and Europe. We went into the studio and and recorded “Soubour,” which is on our album and became the chief song of the Maison Des Jeunes album. That song was produced by Nick Zinner. It was his choice to work with us.
After that things started snowballing and we ended up recording a whole album with Nick.
Songhoy Blues “Soubour” Live at Rough Trade, NYC for Okayafrica TV.
Where did you learn the dances that you bust out during performances?
AT: [Laughs] Good question. Like all Malian kids I learned to dance in the streets, listening to music, from a very young age. Everybody does, everybody dances.
I remember a gig when I was playing the drums and there was a woman with a young child, maybe a 1-year-old. Every time I started playing the drums louder, the baby would start dancing, and then when I calmed it down the baby would calm down and watch. It kept going until the mother told me, “Hey, you’re disturbing my child.” [Laughs]
‘They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile,’ released by BBC Worldwide North America, is now playing in select cities across the United States. Tickets can be found here.