Songhoy Blues – Mali
Glastonbury has come and gone; roaring past in a blink of a weekend and barely a wink of sleep. Apparently a wink is all it would take as Michael Eavis declared that the whole Festival ‘could go‘ forever, in an unlikely polarisation of popularity where the festival suddenly goes out of fashion. However, reassuringly, as the sun rose steadily and inevitably over the legendary, plastic-strewn fields of Worthy Farm, Eavis – now 79 and proudly sporting a gold cup for his herd of cows – stated that this year’s festival was the ‘best yet’ and wouldn’t be going anywhere, at least for a while.
Another super year for Glasto and another year where artists from Mali got serious billing – a huge sign of respect and solidarity that has occurred every year since music was banned in the country in 2012. After packing the stages with a impressive range of Malian guitarists, singer-songwriters, rockers, desert blues-ers and DJs in 2013, and repeating the effort with Toumani & Sidiki Diabate and Tinariwen a year later, it was now the turn of Songhoy Blues to fly the Green, Gold and Red in 2015. Instead of serenading ‘those sore Sunday lunchtime heads‘, as Andy Morgan assured Bassekou Kouyate would do two years previously, Songblues sand-blasted the sleep from the amassing crowd’s eyes with a set that stared down the rain and got the wellies thumping. In Pyramid stage tradition, lead guitarist Garba Toure gave the performance of his life with a mesmerising display equal to any of the greats that have graced the mighty platform previously.
Shortly after the set, I was lucky enough to catch up with lead singer a Aliou Touré and band manager Marc Antoine Moreau, who had both kindly agreed to enter the fray to meet me. The first thing I noticed upon seeing him standing amongst throngs of festival-goers was that, unbelievably, Aliou’s suede shoes had not a speck of famous Glastonbury mud on them. “We found the right path!” they laugh, proudly. And proud they should be, as their successes in this country in particular seem to show no bounds. “The English people like their culture” Aliou suggests pointing to Britain’s great traditions in blues and rock music for an explanation for the bands popularity.
But there must be something more than this, surely? Something unique to explain the band’s exceptional rise? I start my enquiries with a discussion about the title of their new album Music in Exile. Marc explains: “It’s called Music in Exile because it’s their story, they fled from the north to the south, to Bamako, and now they go around the world to tell it.” Songhoy Blues are important ambassadors for educating the world in Mali’s horrible recent history. An important illustration of this appeared later when the band performed live for the BBC. Presenter and Radio DJ Mark Radcliffe would refer to the band’s story and rhetorically ask “who could you imagine suppressing the joy in that?” Its the quintessential reaction given by people all over the world; its empathy, comprehension in incomprehension. Whilst standing in these fields upon fields of music and artistic wonder their story challenges us to imagine it all ablaze, crushed, swept aside in a flurry of fire and flying metal.
But there is joy. Songhoy Blues are the youthful, defiant, energetic and often hilarious alternative. They fit into the spirit of Glastonbury well. We discuss the album in more detail, particularly their song ‘Irganda‘ which means ‘our environment‘. Previously, I naively took to mean the very urgent, western phenomenons that involve things like reducing fuel consumption and reusing plastic bags. Aliou responds that Songhoy Blues’ sound is a mix between the traditional and modern and the song is actually ‘the environment’ in a more national sense. He is more than eager to provide his own view on green issues. He conveys that in Mali “it’s very different” for example “recycling, is very difficult, it’s not being used in Mali”. It is being eclipsed by the problems identified in the song: the lack of water, desertification, a problem which Aliou explains is exacerbated by poverty. Malians have no option but to burn firewood – 6 million tonnes a year I discovered – to cook their food. “Every day they cut down trees. There are already not enough trees”. This rapidly increases the speed in which the Sahara advances. Aliou also mentions the issue of global warming and the particular vulnerability of Timbuktu – his hometown. Its near the river, yes, but also wrapped up by the ever-expanding desert. Its a very fragile eco-system in a very fragile political state.
We chat a little more, about Aliou’s favourite song on the album (its Al Hassidi Teri, by the way), about how it is to be away from Mali for so long (he explains, simply, that its not so bad as the world is an interesting place). Before long, its time to head off – the band have their performance on the BBC to attend and I was booked in for a cup of tea and a cake with my mum.
My conversation with them proved that Songhoy Blues and Glastonbury Festival are a natural fit. It was clear to me, and the sizeable crowd that saw them that day, that this was the just the beginning of the next chapter in something very special.