Escaping Civil War To Make Music

9 March 2016 | 6:25 pm | Tim Mayne

"Even in the darkest times we knew we couldn't stop playing music, even if it was dangerous, even if it was difficult."

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While many emerging musicians struggle to find success, spare a thought for new comers Songhoy Blues.

The four-piece progressive punk/desert blues band had to escape their hometown of Timbuktu in Mali after a civil war where Sharia Law was enforced effectively banning tobacco, alcohol and music. The four men fled to the country's capital Bamako in the south where they formed a band..

Since releasing their debut single, Sobour, and the subsequent album, Music In Exile, Songhoy Blues has attracted critical acclaim across the globe, with NME listing Music In Exile as one of the seven great recent albums to watch. Since releasing the album, Songhoy Blues bass player, Oumar Toure, says the band has not stopped.

"Last year was an incredible journey, we played over 200 shows," Toure says. The first few months of the year have been spent at home resting up and beginning to work on songs for our second record but now we're back on tour again and we couldn't be more excited to be coming to Australia for the first time!"

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Toure says the group met at university and knew straight away they wanted to form a band.

"Then we all went back home after University to our homes in the North.

When the conflict began in the North in 2012, music was banned under Sharia law imposed by the Jihadists that took over the area and we all knew we had to leave.

"We all separately fled to Bamako and that's where we met up again and started playing music almost immediately. Two days after Garba, our guitarist, had arrived in Bamako we got together and played a wedding and that was one of the first Songhoy Blues shows."

The group says while they had to struggle, more than most, to get their music heard, their circumstances only made them more determined to perform.

"How could our music not survive? Where we come from in Mali, music is part of the soul of our culture. Even in the darkest times we knew we couldn't stop playing music, even if it was dangerous, even if it was difficult."

The group grew up with various influences which combined to produce the exciting sound they currently perform.

"Our favourite music is the music of Mali," Toure says. "Our traditional music is about rhythm and groove, cyclical riffs and beautiful melodies so first and foremost we just love the music of our people.

"But we also love lots of other music and Mali isn't cut off from the rest of the world, so we grew up listening to American blues music such as Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Santana and now hip hop and rap is a big influence for us.  People like Jay Z and Kanye West are idolised in Mali but for us Kendrick Lamar is one of the most exciting artists in the world at the moment."

The group's first single from the album, Sobour, (meaning patience) saw the band collaborate with US guitarist Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, something the band says was very exciting for them.

"Nick actually produced the whole of our debut album and that was such an honour for us. He's a man of few words and doesn't speak a lot but when he does say something it's always a great idea, you just know it's important to listen.

"He's played with us onstage a few times now and every time we feel very lucky to know him as a friend and a role model."

Toure says that Australian audiences can expect something quite unique from a Songhoy Blues show.

"We try to blend Malian traditional music with something more contemporary, rock, punk and blues. There's a lot of big grooves to make people dance but a lot of the time it's about guitar riffs and solos.  Hopefully we want to introduce people to Malian music through something accessible, exciting and energetic.

"We love to make people dance. If you come to one of our shows we want you to sweat, dance and have a good time. We're certainly going to!"

Originally published in X-Press Magazine