Dreams Abroad has a global reach. We have an audience, collaborators, and writers based all around the world. Dreams Abroad want 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. A recent happy discovery has been 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!
What 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.
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 honour to be asked to contribute to a version of one of our favourite songs by one of our favourite 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.
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 realised 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.
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 centres, 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.
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”.
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 realised I was actually playing in the band’s show.
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 the Resources section of Dreams Abroad. Here, you’ll locate our VLOGS where some inspiring individuals state their cases. This is also where you will find Recommendations with our preferred blogs and websites.