Ali, Songhoy Blues is really the story of four musicians who found each other in difficult circumstances when in 2012 you were all forced to flee the north of Mali following the invasion by the Islamic fundamentalist forces of Ansar Dine. There's still a significant military presence stationed in the north of Mali, made up of Malian and international troops. In your opinion, what would happen to the region would they suddenly depart?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure (guitar/vocals): "The situation on the ground over there is still tense, not only in the north of Mali, but in the whole sub-Saharan region. The only thing people can do is try to survive. Were the troops of the United Nations and the Malian army are concerned, I don't believe they will provide a permanent solution, as this is a conflict that can only be resolved through intensive dialogue between the different parties involved. Armed conflict is never the solution."
Marc-Antoine Moreau, the guy who discovered you guys at the Tropicana, a nightclub in Bamako, didn't want to market Songhoy Blues as the next world music revelation, but instead signed you at/with the independent label Transgressive Records, who promoted Songhoy Blues as they would do the other rock acts signed to the label. Was that a decision you guys felt comfortable with as well?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "(laughs) Good question… When we first started playing together, we already envisaged not just playing music for the ears of a Malian or even an African audience, but instead to try and create a sound that could possibly earn us worldwide acclaim. The music of Songhoy Blues is a mix of desert blues and percussion rhythms from the south of Mali, with influences from rock, reggae and hip-hop, and is the accumulation of the input of the different members of the band. As we do not believe in a front man or bandleader, Songhoy Blues functions more as a collective, with all members contributing to the songwriting process."
The fact your albums are distributed by Trangressive Records also means that the artists crossing your path aren't necessarily from the world music scene. On 'Résistance' even Iggy Pop makes an appearance!
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "The idea to invite Iggy Pop, who's of course a music legend, came from Tim (Dellow, red.) at Transgressive Records. The lyrics of 'Sahara', the song featuring Iggy, are meant to entice people to come and discover the beauty and culture of the desert, which, as a tourist destination, is often ignored. Come to think of it, that's true for large parts of the entire African continent! The reason is that each time Africa is mentioned in the media, you'll always hear the same negative keywords like dirty, diseased, poor or war-torn popping up. To overcome the prejudices many people still hold about Africa, we needed to involve someone who could reach a much wider audience then we could, and we couldn't have wished for a bigger icon than punk legend Iggy Pop. Because we recorded our parts in different studio's there aren't any images available to prove we actually collaborated and some people still struggle to believe we did, but I hope somewhere in the near future we'll be able to share the stage!"
Hearing 'Bamako', a song describing the vibrant nightlife in the Malian capital, immediately reminded me of Amadou & Mariam's hit album 'Un Dimanche A Bamako'.
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "I agree that that song sounds somewhat similar to their ''Beaux Dimanches', the difference being that our lyrics don't just describe the vibrant nightlife in Bamako, but also talk of it being a way to give the jihadists the finger. You need to know that for tourists there's still a no-go zone in the north of Mali, where tourism and cultural life has come to a complete standstill. Mali has a very rich and diverse culture and taking that away is like ripping people's soul out of their chest! Mali isn't a country with vast natural resources, so tourism is an important economic sector with thousands of Malians making a living from it. The song is our way of protesting against the negative image the media keeps painting of Mali. We're meeting in Brussels today… How many terror related incidents have there already been in this city in the past few years? But still the people persevere and tourists keep coming. Even in Paris, the day after the attack at Bataclan - we were in the city to play a concert that was eventually cancelled - almost all the cafes and restaurants opened their doors again. It's another form of resistance; closing up shop and ceasing all activity would be giving in to the enemy. Part of the lyrics to 'Bamako' read: "Un seul arbre qui tombe le bruit fait scandale, mais la forêt entière qui pousse on n'entend que dalle.", and that's exactly what happens; the media are more interested in bad than in good news! No one writes or talks about the wonderful things you can experience in Bamako, but as soon as something bad happens, they're all circling around it like vultures."
Another song on the album with a similar vibe is 'Yersi Yadda'. What is it about?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "The title translates as: "We don't agree!" and in the song we talk about the nationalist and separatist forces that keep trying to divide the country. For us that's not the solution, because tell me, if tomorrow each of the different ethnicities in Mali would declare independence, in how many pieces would the country be divided?"
You and the other band members of Songhoy Blues are all Songhai. How does traditional Songhai music differ from that of the Bambara, the Wassoulou or any of the other ethnicities in Mali?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "You should situate traditional Songhai music somewhere between Mandinka and Tuareg music. Tuareg music has a lot of Arab influences and reflects the desert climate; it's more melodious than percussive. The Songhai are surrounded by the Fula, the Dogon, the Mandinka and the Tuaregs and influences from all these ethnicities can be found in our music. Hearing this, I think you can understand integrating new influences in our music almost comes naturally to us!"
The region of Timbuktu is also the region were grandmaster Ali Farka Toure was from. I know Garba's father (guitar, red.) still played in his band, so I have to wonder how much of an influence he has been on your musical education?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "He's often called the Malian answer to Jimi Hendrix, but in reality he was so much more than that because he lifted Malian music to a whole other level. After the declaration of independence in 1960, technology-wise Mali was running way behind and when radio and later television finally arrived, the first music people would hear being played was that of Ali and his band mates. You simply couldn't put on the radio without hearing at least a couple of Ali's songs being played! To a certain degree I would say he revolutionized Malian music; before he arrived on the scene Malian musicians still played traditional instruments like the ngoni, the kora or the balafon, but he introduced the electric guitar. We grew up with his music and even when we're not actually listening to it, we can still hear it! (laughs)"
For 'Mali Nord' you invited a young hip-hop artist from the UK called Elf Kid.
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "We met Elf Kid in London after we went to check out one of his concerts. We immediately loved the way he approached things. He's got a very open personality and shows more or less a similar commitment as we do. He used to be a member of grime band The Square, but after a voyage to Africa his mindset changed. I'd say these days he's got more of a Pan-African view on the world and that's also in line with our vision. In his lyrics he often talks about Africa and since we seemed to be fighting the same fight, it seemed only logical to join forces."
One of the more serious sounding tracks on 'Résistance' is 'Voter', not only because of the lyrical content of the song, but also because of its almost metal-like guitar sound.
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "In 'Voter' we talk about the elections, stating the members of Songhoy Blues will no longer be casting their vote. Once again it's another form of resistance. We can only conclude that decades after the declaration of independence politicians are still holding the same discourse to appease their electorate, but once elected, it's back to the order of the day and the promises made during the electoral campaign are quickly forgotten. There's a class of politicians who continue to enrich themselves on the backs of the people who elected them in the first place and we're determined to put an end to this. In this song we're not only ventilating our own opinion, but that of the Malian people, because most of our songs are nothing more than reflections of what we hear being said in the streets, busses and taxis of Bamako. Personally I even often record the conversations I'm having with people and afterwards try to capture the essence to be used as lyrics for one of our songs."
I'd like to conclude with the sleeve design for the new album… Whereas for 'Music In Exile' a simple portrait photo of the band was used, for 'Résistance' you seem to have opted for a more vintage look?
Aliou 'Ali' Toure: "Yes, you're not wrong there. We chose the leopard as a symbol because it's a very decisive animal able to resist long spells of thirst, hunger and heat. On the album cover behind the leopard image, you can only see the shadows of the band members, as if the animal were protecting us. Songhoy Blues is just a budding resistance movement, so we can still use all the protection we can get! (laughs)"