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Is the world ready for Songhoy Blues?

Having fled civil unrest in their hometown, Mali blues-punks Songhoy Blues have taken their story to the world with Music In Exile. And the world is ready to listen...

"It was terrifying,” says Garba Touré. “Absolutely terrifying, and all I could think was that I had to get out. I didn’t know how but I knew I had to go.” Garba Touré, the young, striking lead guitarist with Songhoy Blues, the Malian desert blues outfit who wowed audiences with 2015’s Music In Exile, is referring to the civil war that broke out in Mali in spring 2012, when the northern half of the country descended into chaos with extremists and rebels fighting for control. When the former seized power of Gao, a bustling city located on the eastern bank of the Niger river that Garba called home, he – with thousands of others – fled to Bamako, Mali’s capital, a 15-hour bus ride away.

“We were placed under Sharia law in Gao. There was terrible violence, people fighting in the streets, they were whipping people, they said we couldn’t play music, we couldn’t sing, we couldn’t drink, we couldn’t smoke. We couldn’t do anything and if we did, there were repercussions. I had to get out, I had no choice. I took some clothes, took my guitar, got on a bus and left straight away.”

As radio stations, mobile phone towers and recording studios were dismantled and musicians threatened with violence, Aliou Touré (no relation) headed for the capital too. “At this time we had no idea we were going to form a band together, even less an idea that music was going to become our career, that was far from our minds,” says Aliou. “Instead we were asking ourselves loads of questions, the main one, when we get to Bamako would the problem follow us? Would it come as far as Bamako? Were we safe there? Because it was like a tornado, you just could not calculate which way the wind was blowing, it was difficult to have any view of the future and how it would work out, or what would happen. In 2011, when the Libyan crisis blew up, I saw thousands of refugees arriving in Gao without shoes and clothing. They were tired, hungry, scared, so when it started happening in Mali, I asked myself, is that going to happen to us? Are we going to become refugees in Bamako, Senegal, Algeria? It was a frightening prospect to have to consider.”

Today the situation couldn’t be more different for Garba and Aliou, not just because relative peace has been restored in northern Mali after a French-backed military initiative helped remove the jihadists from power, but also because with bassist Oumar Touré (again no relation) and drummer Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Dembélé, they are now one of the most successful groups to emerge from Mali, appealing to both traditionalists and a new generation enthralled by western blues and classic rock.

This is in part thanks to Damon Albarn’s Africa Express, which “discovered” the group in 2013, but more the fact that their aforesaid Music In Exile album is one of, if not the blues album of 2015. Sold-out European tours have followed its issue, also a stirring performance on Jools Holland’s Later... TV show, and the day The Blues speaks to them, there’s a preview showing of the excellent _They Will __Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile_ film. Produced, directed and filmed by Johanna Schwartz, it documents the group plus Khaira Arby, Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walet Oumar and Moussa Ag Sidi’s plight.

Chatting to The Blues over lunch in the bar of London’s Picturehouse Central, Songhoy Blues plus their English French translator are polite, enthusiastic, humble and keen to tell their unique tale. They are also impeccably attired in patterned knitwear, smart jeans and polished shoes. A change of clothes – black suit trousers, white shirts – are hung on the back of their chairs, to change into later – it seems the band’s budget doesn’t cover a hotel room.

It doesn’t bother the group though. “Every musician has that dream that it could happen, that they could get recognised and make it big, but we never thought it would happen to us,” says Garba. “It is just like every footballer has the dream that they will play for Barcelona or Chelsea, the dream is always there. But that it should actually happen at that time in particular, we had no conception of that and that we are now here in Europe, performing our music to packed houses, being interviewed, being written about, appearing on TV, in a film, it is beyond our wildest beliefs.”

In April 2014, buoyed by their live success, the group went into Bamako’s Humble Heart studio with Nick Zinner to record Music In Exile. A spectacular debut of rousing rebel music and message songs featuring Albarn on backing vocals, its execution is passionate, thrilling in its cries for justice, freedom and unity.

On release, it turned their world upside down.

“Life really has changed for us,” says Garba. “When we go back home, our family and friends are all very supportive but strangers and acquaintances who recognise us on the street can be a bit strange. They make assumptions, they think the success has gone to our heads, and they are eager to reject us because they think we’re all uppity now we’ve been to Europe. They like to cut us down to size.”

“But of course we are still ourselves,” says Aliou. “We haven’t changed one bit and we have nostalgia for the simple life that is still there in Mali. So when we come off tour, we go back to the Tropicana and the Arizona, we see bands playing, we dance, sing, we sit down with our mates and drink tea with them on the street corner, we chat. We still take the bus from A to B. We will never give up on our old life, we miss it when we are on the road.”

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