To many Americans, it is unimaginable to consider music as a freedom. This expression is a foundational value of the United States, a Constitutional right to each citizen. A threat to this cultural pilar often wielded as a vessel of activation would endanger the construct of democracy.
Across the Atlantic, Malian rock group Songhoy Blues stands on the front lines of resistance at a moment of socio-political instability to deliver hope to the emerging generation with sensational rock n’ roll.
Almost a decade ago, members of the band fled their hometowns in the northern region of the country after a civil war and a coup d ‘état that lead to the imposition of strict Sharia law.
The four young men met as refugees, part of a mass exile of Malian musicians evading oppressive restrictions placed by the encroaching Islamic extremist group. The new law banned music, radio broadcasts, and alcohol. Settling in Bamako, Mali’s southern capital, Songhoy Blues diverges from the ideological division, infusing transcendental traditions into their desert scorched soundscape.
Their third studio album, Optimisme, meaning “optimism,” was released on October 23 via Fat Possum Records. The collection, produced by Matt Sweeney, speaks to an uncertain world. As a global pandemic ensues, highlighting human rights injustices and calling political leadership into question, the band reminds us to seek sanguinity in our shared humanity.
As purveyors of forbidden history, Songhoy Blues effortlessly blends West African music traditions with Western rock n’ roll to deliver harrowing yet hopeful ideals. This merging is emblematic of a larger message—the idea that these men, sons of previous Mali, hold a responsibility to preserve their heritage amidst a revolution. They captivate a young, impressionable audience by introducing revolutionary concepts from further reaching corners of the world.
Damian Albarn’s Africa Express first discovered the group. The band then connected with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s who produced their debut album, Music In Exile. First signed by The Strokes Julian Casablancas to his imprint on Atlantic Records, the band ultimately found their home with Transgressive/Fat Possum. Songhoy Blues built upon their global momentum after being featured in “They Will Have to Kill Us First,” a documentary about the plight of musicians in war-torn Mali.
The dynamic quartet takes cues from The Black Keys, Foo Fighters, Gary Clark Jr., Alabama Shakes, and others of the like. The searing sounds of punk-rock and alternative grunge fuse with their West African groove to defy the destruction of their democracy. All 11 tracks, translated in three languages, were penned in a joint effort by all band members.
“Worry” is the first original song they recorded in English. Aliou Touré is most proud of this song because it seems to capture the album’s timeliness to the pandemic-ridden world.
“The harshness of life still weighs on our societies and sinks many young people into a dead end,” says the band. “‘Worry’ is a positive energy that Songhoy Blues want to be a ray of hope for humanity. ‘Worry’ is about not stopping fighting because, at the very end, you will find the light.”
Punk-like influences are best represented in the album opener, “Badala,” which translates to “I don’t care.” Lead singer Aliou Touré, shouts while the backing band, Garba Touré, Oumar Touré, and Nathanael Dembélé shred through the psychedelic instrumentation, breaking free from the patriarchy. Sung in native Songhai, Aliou thoughtfully adopts the perspective of an oppressed woman. Lyrically, the protest song insinuates defiance with undertones of freedom.
Track five, “Barre,” is a political anthem for the coming-of-age generation in Mali. Much like young Americans at the moment, this emerging class feels misrepresented by politicians who should have aged out of office many years ago.
“The men in power, most of them in their 60s and 70s, do not even know how to use a smartphone,” says Aliou. “How are they supposed to lead a country in the 21st century? It’s time for them to start trusting young people to lead our country in the right direction. This song is for the young ones so that they know what they are capable of.”
At their inception, Songhoy Blues wielded the Western world’s influence to infiltrate its freedom into Mali—a once-democratic, now devastated and divided nation. As they’ve grown, their messaging reverberates worldwide. If you listen carefully, their potent performances have shifted direction to encapsulate a broader audience.
“In the United States, you have access to anything you want to know or listen to,” reminds Aliou. “All we hear over here is ‘America, America, America.’ When we toured there, I saw that many people don’t leave their state, and many don’t have passports. All they know is their country. Our message is that it’s time for America to hear about us, to learn more about the places that they all come from.”
Songhoy Blues are proud supporters of the charities WaterAID UK, Tree Aid, and the Great Green Wall Project for Africa, for which they kicked off the United Nation’s 2019 Climate Change Week in New York City. The band has helped raise money & awareness toward providing relief in their native Mali and continue fighting for progress and change everywhere.
Listen to Optimisme from Songhoy Blues, here.