Blues | Alternative | Rock
Fat Possum Records
PREMIERE: Desert Punk/Blues band Songhoy Blues drop video for news single “Yersi Yada” + Q&A
By Nathan Leigh
August 16, 2017
Songhoy Blues were born in an act of resistance, so it’s fitting their new record would take the name Résistance. After being forced from their homes in Timbuktu when Sharia law was imposed and secular music was banned in northern Mali, the quartet formed in Mali’s capital Bamako.
Their latest record builds on the sounds they explored in Music In Exile; a mixture of Songhai rhythms and blues and rock sounds. It mixes it up with contributions from Iggy Pop, grime MC Elf Boy, and violinist William Harvey. Lyrically, the album takes a more directly political edge, poignantly with new single “Yersi Yada” (which means “We Do Not Agree”). The song rides a buoyant beat and raucous horn section to take on those who use religion as a tool of oppression. The song’s energy masks a radical defiance; it’s a powerful message that in the face of cruelty and oppression, simply being joyful is a form of rebellion. The video opens with a reminder that 65.6 million people have been displaced by conflict and persecution before showcasing the faces of refugees from all over the world. “Yersi Yada” is exactly what the world needs right now.
We recently got a chance to speak with band leader Aliou Touré.
Did you know each other before coming to Bamako?
We actually met while at university in Bamako a few years before the band started. After we finished studying we all went back to our homes in the North of Mali; myself and Oumar to Gao and Garba to Timbuktu. Then when the trouble started in the North and we had to come back to Bamako for safety we re-connected and knew we had to play together straight away. We arrived back in Bamako and a few days later we were playing at a wedding together. Our drummer Nat is from Bamako and joined a little later.
Growing up, what music were you listening to?
We listened to a lot of different music, I guess because we were really the first generation to have the luxury of the internet to discover music from beyond Mali. Our first love was always Malian traditional music, the music of our culture. But apart from that it was a complete variety. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. Bob Marley is a big hero for me. And our drummer Nat loves Red Hot Chilli Peppers. But we listened to everything: hip-hop, reggae, R&B, blues, rock.
Were you already fans of Iggy Pop before the collaboration? How did that come about?
In all honesty we didn’t really know Iggy Pop until we were looking at who could collaborate on the album. But he’d played us a few times on his radio show in the UK, so we knew he liked our music. Then when we were actually introduced to his music and watched the way he performs, we knew he was someone we wanted to work with. Luckily for us he felt the same way.
What are the Songhai music traditions you try to bring out in your music?
Songhai traditions will always be at the centre of our music because it’s what we grew up listening to most. I think the main things are the rhythms and structure. With the way music was played traditionally for us, songs would last for hours with these cyclical melodies that just looped and looped. Hopefully that comes through in the way we play now; we just wanted to find a way to be more direct.
How did exile change your perspective on music?
I think it made us appreciate how important music was for us. As soon as the music ban started in the North of Mali we knew we had to get out, we just couldn’t live without it. Then once we were safe in Bamako it became our way of protesting. It was just the only way we knew to get across a message of hope and reconciliation to as many people as possible.
Were there, or are there, things you worried about saying in songs? Or were there things you could say in songs that you felt like you couldn’t say in conversation?
I think on Music in Exile, the lyrics were mainly positive, they were messages of encouragement to our peers who were despondent and felt hopeless. It might seem like we were born out of a controversial situation, but the reality was, there was so much negativity at the time, we just wanted to be the ones to say something positive and bring a message of hope. With our new album, Résistance, I think that’s changed a bit. We never thought we would have the global audience that we’ve developed and with that it feels like there’s more of a responsibility to speak out against the things that we see that are wrong.
What responsibilities to artists have to use their art to resist and speak out about injustice?
In Mali in particular I think there’s a responsibility as a musician to talk about the things that are happening around you. So much is misconstrued or simply ignored by the news and literacy levels aren’t absolute so not everyone reads the newspaper. Music is a universal language, though, so even if you don’t watch or read the news you can find out about what’s going on through song. Music in a broader sense has always been about Resistance though. Most of the great social shifts in society over the last century have been soundtracked by the music of the time, whether that’s jazz, rock, hip-hop or house music. Great artists like Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and even today with Kendrick Lemar – they all had a sense of social responsibility. They all knew they had a platform to inspire change, and they did in many cases.
What kind of response has your music gotten in Mali? Is it different in the North than in Bamako?
Outside of Bamako we haven’t really played in Mali. While things are quieter and safer now, it still wouldn’t be safe to play a full concert in the North. So we don’t really know how our music will be received when we do. In Bamako, though, the best thing about playing our music is in seeing people from different backgrounds all enjoying it. Concerts are where you see people from the North and South coming together to share an appreciation for music.
What role do you think art has in healing Mali?
Art in general definitely has a big role to play in healing Mali. Music for one has the power to bring people together from different backgrounds – it’s why we started this band in the first place. We wanted to spread a positive message to people from the North and South and hopefully if people can come together over something as primal as music, they can begin to strengthen ties between those different communities.
What do you hope your music will accomplish outside of Mali?
To promote a positive picture of Mali and West Africa in general. That’s partly why we were so happy with the lyrics Iggy wrote for Sahara – they’re really simple but as one of the only english lines on the album we really hoped he’d be able to convey the simple message that we want to spread. The images that people see of West Africa in the news are seldom positive, war, famine, violence, that’s all people see. We wanted to show that that’s only a very small part of the picture and that there’s so much more to Mali than that. That’s why in the Bamako video we really wanted to transport people to Bamako – despite the fact that three different directors said no when we came to them with the idea – we wanted to show that it’s the same as any other place in a lot of ways, even down to a Saturday night out with friends…
What else do you have coming up that you want people to know about?
The rest of the year is just touring and more touring. We’ll be in North America again from 28th September for a big tour and then it’s back to Europe for more touring there! So we’ll see you on the road I guess!