Meet Songhoy Blues, Monumental Malian Musicians

Meet Songhoy Blues, Monumental Malian Musicians

Dreams Abroad has a global reach. We have an audience, collaborators, and writers based all around the world, with a goal to cover each continent in glorious, technicolor detail. As we go about our working day, we listen to a developing soundtrack of artists both established and emerging. One previous happy discovery was Songhoy Blues, and we were delighted to set up an interview with bass player Oumar Touré.

Before proceeding to the Q and A, we want to give you a bit of backstory. Oumar is a founding member of Songhoy Blues. He’s also, along with bandmates, a refugee within his homeland. Oumar was forced to flee northern Mali after it was captured by jihadists. One of the first acts the new rulers made illegal was the making of music. Thankfully, Touré and future bandmates escaped to the more culturally tolerant south of the country.

You were born out of a civil war but your music sounds joyous. How difficult is it to stay positive through dark times?

It’s certainly difficult. Despite the challenges, we have to find the right balance between taking our music further afield to reach audiences who are not necessarily in the same situation as us, and denouncing the crisis that our country is going through. This is why we have remained very joyful in our music — but very rebellious in our lyrics!

Landscape With Trees And Cliffs Of Dogon Country In MaliWhat influence did producer Matt Sweeney and mixer Daniel Schlett have on your sound?”

Matt and Daniel are gentlemen who have a great knowledge of music, with Matt especially having a lot of experience with African music. So having these guys with us in the studio brings only good things — not only in the sound choice but also in the whole arrangement of the album. 

The sound effects that Matt offers in each song are so valuable and have contributed a lot to build that rock influence in our style of playing. 

If there is one thing Matt excels at, it is that he always lets us play. Then he tells us  “you go back and play with more anger, rage.” The result is much better. Daniel’s touches are also in the same vein. They have brought a good dose of electro-rock sound to our music while maintaining its African flavour.

And Damon Albarn on your career?

Damon and the Africa Express project were the triggers for Songhoy Blues to start our careers. Not many talents in Africa get this kind of opportunity. It helped us find our very first manager Marc Antoine and our label Transgressive. But since then, the adventure continues. We are starting to fly on our own despite the fact that the route is not easy.

You recently debuted on Stephen Colbert’s show. How do you explain the increasingly universal popularity of the band?”

We are lucky to have a dynamic team that works every day to make things happen – good management and record labels who believe in us. However, we ourselves work hard to continue to push what we are doing and who we can speak to with our music. That’s what makes more and more echoes.

Songhoy Blues in white posing on some rocks.

How did the Peace Through Music collaboration come about?”

We are mutual fans — Playing for Change and Songhoy Blues. They have a school here in Mali and do a lot of amazing work, unifying people around the world through music. It was an honor to be asked to contribute to a version of one of our favorite songs by one of our favorite guys in music — Bob Marley! 

The video was very beautiful and the message is so important right now. It was great to have some connectivity with other musicians and with people around the world. We love to tour and play so much but obviously haven’t been able to for nearly two years now. We also filmed a performance of our song Barre for them in an old schoolyard in Bamako, Mali’s capital.

What does Get Up Stand Up mean to you?

Get Up Stand Up for us definitely speaks to the role of the artist, but also of citizens who have a responsibility to participate in the events of their environment. An artist must therefore and above all speak about the problems of their country. They must see the problems of living beings where they are. And if these problems are ones such as basic human rights (to which Bob alludes), then one must be even more committed.

Songhoy Blues performs on a stage

By the time of his death, Bob Marley felt more African than Caribbean. How much are you motivated by pointing out Mother Africa’s influence on American Blues music?

If at the time of his death, Bob Marley felt more African than Caribbean, this is a great recognition of the African continent. The continent has had a dark past in contemporary history. And I think it’s actions like that that give Africa back its dignity. We believe that the legacy of African music on American Blues can be a great opportunity for us to reach more people in the USA and even elsewhere because of the similarities that still exist between the two musics.

To what extent does your message get diluted if your audience doesn’t understand what you are singing?”

Our songs have been well received all over the world since the creation of the group. However, the understanding of our message has still not been fully realized because of the language barrier. This can be frustrating, especially as we need to share the dire situation of our people with the whole world. We are becoming more and more aware of this reality, and are working on it! So we have already started to take some measures like translating the texts of the videos and singing in other international languages. Further measures will follow.

One of the most iconic cultural British TV moments was the filming of the Bhundu Boys visiting Ireland and jamming with Gaelic musicians. How much do you see music as crossing boundaries?”

Music has never followed the logic of artificial boundaries that people have set for it or themselves. We’ve been listening to The Beatles since we were kids — and today Songhoy Blues is listened to in Australia.

A settlement in Mali

To what extent was your album named Optimisme a reaction to the pandemic?”

Our definition of optimism on this third album is a double reaction. Firstly, to give a glimmer of hope to Malians living in a crisis that is only getting worse. We wanted to bring joy to their hearts at this level. Secondly, we wanted to send positive energy regarding the great crises of the moment -— the world health situation, the current wars — to say that Songhoy Blues believes in a better tomorrow. We invite our fans to cultivate more love and freedom and to celebrate the importance of life.

Most countries have a north-south divide. You’re a northern exile living in the south of Mali. How do the two parts of the country differ?

They differ drastically. The north of Mali, where we come from, is like a town from the Middle Ages. There are no roads, schools, health centers, or security. This kind of place makes the population flee and creates a feeling of rebellion, especially with the religious extremism that threatens the north. On the other hand, the south is more stable. It has more infrastructure and more musical opportunities for the group.

View Of Bamako And The Niger River In Mali

Some of the most memorable London concerts from the Noughties were The Strokes (who ran out of songs) playing Brixton Academy for the first time and Yeah Yeah Yeahs at David Bowie’s Meltdown. How much has their indie-rock permeated your sound?

We’re in the Internet age nowadays and we have access to many different types of music. There are bound to be effects and sounds used by these big bands that appeal to us. It will inevitably influence the way we make music. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are an especially good example since our first album was produced by Nick Zinner!

Three members of the band share a surname in Touré but none of you are related. You are all, however, Songhai. What does it mean to be Songhai to you?”

We are proud to belong to the Songhoy ethnic group. It was the largest medieval empire in Africa south of the Sahara. We draw a rich history of music from it, along with the superb languages. But beyond that, being Songhoy also allows us to talk about this once very cosmopolitan land that has developed a sense of state. And this heritage today is poorly known by all Malians. This is why we define ourselves as “the Songhoy of Mali.”

Blue electric guitar in a dark room

What has been your most memorable festival experience and why?”

Everyone in this band likely has their own unique memorable event, but for me, playing the Pyramid Stage in June 2015 at Glastonbury remains a day I will never forget. It was my first time playing in front of a crowd. Most of the time on stage I was observing the audience. It was only during the last two songs that I realized I was actually playing in the band’s show.

Songhoy Blues with guitar in front of building

Final thoughts on music making a difference

We get that music is entertainment. However, we are aware that some musicians are more rooted in their home country than others. The likes of Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, and Tinariwen have helped to put Mali on the (musical) map. Songhoy Blues want to keep this landlocked West Africa country there.

Songhoy Blues are rebels with a cause. They want to get their message across. But they do it in the most emotive way by featuring guitar licks Jimi Hendrix himself would have been proud of. Songhoy Blues pack some punch both on stage and in the recording studio.

If this interview has grabbed your attention, mosey on over to our VLOGS where some inspiring individuals state their cases.

39 thoughts on “Meet Songhoy Blues, Monumental Malian Musicians

  1. Songhoy Blues are a young and exuberant Malian band who already have a remarkable history behind them.

    They fled from their homes in the north when radical Islamists overran the region, and on reaching the safety of Bamako, decided to form a band. They’re such an inspiration to many!

  2. What a coincidence, three band members carry the same surname but not related at all. I am interested to know more about Oumar Toure. He came from a civil war but he chooses to be positive but playing music.

    1. It is quite a common surname in West Africa. There are some famous footballers called Toure too. Talent runs in the family.

  3. I love reading through their interview. I love the positivity of this group and there’s something about them that’s so relatable.

    1. Ivan, Songhoy Blues send out all the right sounds. They are role models. It’s clear that they have been influenced by an earlier generation of artists and we expect them to be guiding figures for emerging generations of musicians.

  4. This is so exciting I am always looking for some new music to listen to while I run. I will try and find Songhoy Blues onspotify or other outlets.

    1. We can imagine that listening to Songhoy Blues while running could inspire you to break Olympic records, Melissa. The band is on Spotify. They are also on Apple Music.

    1. Who doesn’t love Bob Marley? He has provided the soundtrack to so many lives. Here’s hoping Songhoy Blues are remembered for years to come too.

  5. I hope Matt is paid what he deserves! Anybody who encourages you to do your thing more and more is the right person for the job!

    1. Matt is a talented musician in his own right. This probably improves his production skills. He is able to speak with authority and experience.

    1. I hadn’t heard of them until recently myself, Amber. But when I discover a new band that I like, I want to tell as many people as possible. Hopefully, this article will lead to Songhoy Blues growing their audience even more.

  6. I really love their music, and I love the message they’re trying to spread out in the world. Amazing stuff.

    1. You’re so right, Brianne. This is world music at its finest. Their optimism sparkles in their music.

  7. This musical group is new to me, but I watched the clip from the Late Show and loved it! It is nice to learn more about them.

    1. Their appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert shows they’re going places, Beth. Songhoy Blues are definitely heading in the right direction. It’s very much a case of onwards and upwards.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed reading the interview, Scarlett. We are always on the lookout to talk to interesting people. Oumar Touré is certainly an intriguing individual.

    1. They have released three albums. So there is no shortage of Songhoy Blues material. Happy listening!

  8. I enjoyed reading this interview. What stood out for me was our being joyous and sending a message with their lyrics wasn’t mutually exclusive.

    1. You’re right, Louisa. Songhoy Blues manage a balance. Their music will move your body and mind.

  9. Oh wow, I loved this interview! I love that the group is very aware of their mission and cause. That will definitely make me enjoy someone’s music even more than I already do

  10. They sound like a great band. I’m always interested in learning about new singers and band members. What a wonderful interview.

  11. I love how they started and how far they are now. Looking forward to more music coming from you guys! Good luck and more power!

  12. Great to see a music thread here to celebrate culture and travel as part of your Dreams Abroad format. I spent close to four months in west Africa with a month of that time in Mali. This was a way back in 1991. Completely different from now I am sure.
    Traoré was the iron-fisted leader at the time and I quickly filled the pages of my passports because I was required to register with the police in every city or town. My prize passport souvenir was from the police headquarters in Tombouctou (Timbuktu).
    At the time I knew nothing about west African music and I got to see a performance in neighbouring Senegal by Youssou N’Dour and the Super Étoile de Dakar. N’Dour later found fame touring with Peter Gabriel (for those who can remember that far back.)
    In Mali, one of the emerging stars at the time was Oumou Sangaré. Her music was played everywhere – particularly in Bamako.
    So thanks for this article – it has brought back a lot of great memories.

    1. Great to hear from you, Michael. It’s fascinating to learn about your adventures in west Africa. Maybe you can write about them for us sometime. I am really pleased that you got to listen to local music when you were there.

  13. The magic of travel is experiencing different cultures. For me, food and music exemplify that.
    My home country of Canada is second to none when it comes to scenic beauty. What lured me away was the attraction of understanding and embracing other cultures.
    So as well as your professional (teaching) articles, I enjoy reading the Dreams Abroad pieces related to food and music and the arts in general.

  14. Sounds like a wonderful group with great music as well. So interesting to read more about their background.

  15. African music is very new to me. I’ve just checked the band on YouTube and I love their music. My favorite songs are “Worry” and “Soubour”. I wish Songhoy Blues much success in their further career !

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