ACL Review: Songhoy Blues

Defiant Malians inspire dance party

As documented in 2015 film They Will Have to Kill Us First, Mali’s Songhoy Blues fled its home in Timbuktu to avoid prosecution under strict Sharia law, which bans music. A narrative with the indomitable spirit of music defying violent oppression usually puts audiences on an artist’s side long before a single note’s been struck.

Photo by Shelley Hiam

Even so, it’s impossible to know whether the audience gathered in front of the BMI stage on Sunday afternoon knew the quartet’s backstory or if they just wanted to dance. The latter seems most likely.

Once bassist Oumar Touré and drummer Nathanael Dembele began to play, it was nearly impossible not to move body parts inclined to shake rhythmically. Garba Touré’s guitar added melody via expertly picked African riffology and colorful blues rock solos. Singer Aliou Touré (the three Tourés are not related) proved you don’t have to be Robert Plant – or even sing in English – to be the consummate frontman.

Before the first song was halfway done, the crowd was theirs. While the quartet trucks loosely in the same desert blues as Saharan cousins Tinariwen and Terakaft, Songhoy makes theirs more accessible to Western ears. Influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker to the Champs’ “Tequila” popped up, and while the licks stayed repetitive, they never quite settled into trance.

Instead, Songhoy powered tracks from Music in Exile and Résistance with the same energy that lifts most African music beyond the realm of mere entertainment: joy. The Fedora-wearing, black-clad Aliou threw himself into traditional African dance, Garba squeezed his guitar face in time with bending his notes, and Oumar simply smiled with satisfaction at the sounds his band made.

By the time Songhoy Blues brought the show to a close with the nearly punk rock “Voter,” it left no doubt that this band makes music as much in celebration as defiance.

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More Songhoy Blues
Sunday ACL Fest Interview: Songhoy Blues
Sunday ACL Fest Interview: Songhoy Blues
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Songhoy Blues, ACL Fest 2017, Aliou Touré, Garba Touré, Oumar Touré, Nathanael Dembele, Tinariwen, Terakaft, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Robert Plant, the Champs, They Will Have to Kill Us First