“Revelatory” is not an overstatement to describe the power of Songhoy Blues, a young band from Mali that made its SXSW debut on Tuesday at the Transgressive Records showcase. Their 45-minute set of guitar-driven music connects the trance-inducing traditions of their African musical ancestry with flavors employed by the Black Keys, reggae and funk artists and, back in the day, Led Zeppelin.
“We electrify traditional music a bit more to bring it to the modern level,” says guitarist Garba Toure, speaking through a translator in a phone interview. “It’s more beats, [faster] tempo — a younger way to show a new generation there’s no need to give [the music] a label: rock or blues.”
Songhoy Blues’ performance at Buffalo Billiards was only their fourth in the U.S., having played New York, Chicago and Milwaukee last week opening for Alabama Shakes. Over the last two years, their following has grown from the clubs of Bamako in southern Mali to London and Europe, where their fanbase includes Damon Albarn, who booked the band for his Africa Express, and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who produced their debut album, Music in Exile, for the Transgressive label.
Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman saw the the band in November and rush-released the album in late February right after signing them. Post-SXSW, the group will do one final show in New York, play the Great Escape Festival in Brighton, England, in May, and return to the U.S. for a tour in June.
On top of that activity, Songhoy Blues are featured prominently on a documentary also premiering at SXSW, They Will Have to Kill Us First, about the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the banning of music in much of the country. As the film shows, three of Songhoy Blues’ members were displaced from their homes in Gao, moving to the south where the band took shape. A distribution deal for the film and a corresponding soundtrack is imminent.
With so much activity, the question becomes: How does a band with a superb live show and a dynamic album break out beyond the corridors of so-called “world music”?
“Get people experiencing it. The live show is the ultimate experience, but they did make a great record,” said Kallman, who saw the band perform Nov. 14 at a small pub in Camden, England, and told Songhoy Blues that night Atlantic would be offering them a deal. “We do it with licensing, synch in film and television, touring, other artists talking about them, playing on other artists’ records. We’ll try every trick in the book to get them heard. We’ve seen magical records in the past — Buena Vista Social Club — records that capture the zeitgeist of the people. There are no unreasonable expectations for the record — we’ll just expose it and let it create its fans.”
It is a risk: Atlantic has not worked with an African artist since it signed saxophonist Manu Dibango and released his Soul Makossa album in 1972. Add to that the fact that Songhoy Blues are a young, relatively inexperienced band, and African artists whose music plays off connections to cultural traditions generally arrive in the U.S. with a body of work behind them.
They also tend to be older. Ali Farka Toure and Angola’s Cesaria Evora were each 54 when they registered world music hits in the U.S.; Nigeria’s Femi Kuti, the son of Fela, was 37 when his first American album came out; and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate, who collaborated with Bjork and Taj Mahal early on, was in his late 30s when his recordings came out in the U.S.
The four members of Songhoy Blues are in their 20s. Singer Aliou, 28, bassist Oumar, 29, and guitarist Garba, 28, share the surname Toure but are not related. Only Garba comes from a musical family: His father played guitar in the band of the revered late guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who exposed American audiences to the blues connection between Timbuktu in Mali to the Mississippi Delta in the 1990s. Drummer Nathanial “Nat” Dembele, 25, hails from Bamako, where the band took shape.
The Songhoy are one of Mali’s many ethnic groups, and their music connects with traditional elements, most specifically choral singing, and the music they heard growing up; the band singled out B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Ali Farka Toure in the interview, though it has been reported they also listen to hip-hop and classic rock of the 1960s.
Their songs, written in Bamako, captured club audiences in southern Mali, and in the fall of 2013, they landed an audition with French music manager Marc-Antoine Moreau and wound up recording a track, which Zinner produced, that would open the Africa Express album Maison des Jeunes.
Concerts in London, Glasgow and the WOMAD festival followed in 2014, leading to the deal with Transgressive Records. The experience, says Aliou, had little effect on their music. “We learned how to work internationally, how to set up a proper set for a festival, how to be professional.”
While Songhoy Blues was developing an international presence, Johanna Schwartz was making the band one of the key characters in They Will Have to Kill Us First.
“We filmed them in action writing a new song called ‘Baba Hou,’ which is asking all of Mali’s diaspora to come home to Mali to help rebuild their country,” she said from London, prior to SXSW. “It’s a beautiful scene on the riverbank in Bamako as night falls; the boys have to cut the songwriting short, however, when Garba realizes its not safe to stay out that late and they should all be on their way.”
Many of Songhoy Blues’ tracks act as narration in the film, such as the song “Petit Metier,” which implores Mali’s citizens to return to their jobs and their businesses. “It talks about not sitting around waiting for international aid but to get back to work and get on with life,” Schwartz says.
“The songs are about love, peace, unifying the people, the bravery of women,” Aliou said. “We’re very committed to the world around us — the environment, the importance of education.”
Onstage at Buffalo Billiards, there is no sense that Songhoy Blues are singing about tragedy. The musical experience is joyous. Aliou, dressed smartly in a black suit like a classic soul singer, is an animated performer, full of wide-eyed facial expressions and dance moves that feel handed down from previous generations of the Songhoy.
His bandmates offered a striking visual contrast: Garba donning Western garb such as a cowboy hat; Oumar in matching white keffiyeh and T-shirt with faded blue jeans; and Nat in orange and black, the sequins on his T-shirt sparkling like something out of the Ice Capades.
Beyond Aliou’s dance moves, nothing they do is showy. Oumar and Garba frame the singer, coming together physically only once in the set. Musically, though, there is never a sense that they are not on the same page, and as the music weaves together so intricately, a flub would be instantly identifiable. The group said that what American audiences will see in 2015 is no different than what people in the clubs of Bamako and London have seen over the last year or so.
“Some people can go international and become famous and they forget about how they started,” Oumar said. “This is a chance to get this region on the map, for which we are very proud and feel lucky.”
At SXSW, Songhoy Blues will perform Thursday (March 19) at 5 p.m. at the San Jose Hotel; and Friday at 10 p.m. at the Parish. They return to New York for a show Monday at the Rockwood Music Hall.
They Will Have to Kill Us First screens Friday at 7 p.m. in the Vimeo Theater.