Songhoy Blues @ (le) poisson rouge, 4/14/16
When Mali makes international headlines, it’s usually due to war and violence within the country. It was in the midst of this conflict that Songhoy Blues was formed, but you wouldn’t know that from the blazing set they put on at (le) poisson rouge. Despite Sharia law forbidding music in the northern portion of Mali, the quartet came together to create songs that are serious but hopeful, cutting but joyful.
You don’t have to be able to understand Songhoy Blues’ lyrics or know their back story to appreciate their style of “desert blues.” Their tunes are packed with guitarist Garba Touré’s hypnotic licks, drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s insistent beats, and Oumar Touré’s confident bass lines meant to get the listener grooving. Indeed, when frontman Aliou Touré wasn’t playing guitar or singing, he often broke into moves that would make a veteran choreographer jealous. The fact that he had a massive smile on his face during most of his dance breaks just made the energy all the more infectious.
Though their set only lasted about an hour, Songhoy Blues packed more energy into that time than many festival lineups could inspire. The audience hardly needed Aliou’s encouragement to clap and dance, though there wasn’t much room to move with how the audience packed into the venue. There were a few serious moments when he reminded the crowd how precious music is to life and encouraged everyone to embrace more African music. Refusing to be silenced by jihadists, he stated, “They will have to kill us first.” It was a bold declaration and a reference to a documentary of the same name, which depicts the band’s rise to international recognition and the struggles of three other musicians within Mali. However, it wasn’t long before he was sharing another grin with his bandmates.
The delicate “Petit Metier” took on gorgeous dimension live, while the angular guitar of “Irganda” offered little opportunity to catch a breath. “Sekou Oumarou” was the perfect combination of old school blues guitar with a snapping beat, while “Soubour” shifts from a slow start to an energetic tempo. Each song had its own way of connecting with the audience, and by the time the band left the stage, it was difficult to shuffle away with legs exhausted from a night of dancing. “He might be the hardest working man in the business,” my friend said in regard to Aliou Touré’s showmanship. If there is any justice in the industry, her prediction should mean that the band only continues to find bigger audiences for their music and their message for a peaceful, creative Mali.