Malian desert blues honchos Songhoy Blues made quite an impression a couple of years back when they first ventured to Europe. Their impact was such that they were even invited to contribute a cover of ‘Kashmir’ for a magazine’s CD tribute to Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
The courtyard of Somerset House seems like an incongruous setting for a band born out of the sub-Sahara and oppression. But on a warm summer’s night it suits the vibrancy of Songhoy Blues’ performance just dandy. They come onstage accompanied by The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’, summing up their dilemma as guys who love their home but had to flee northern Mali for the capital Bamako, and they immediately begin to set the place alight with their energy.
|Songhoy silhouettes at Somerset House|
Right from the off they seem to offer a variety of influences and none. An early rolling groove with hints of drone sounds is a reminder that there are artists out there aiming to forge an Afro-Celtic sound. Garba Touré’s lead guitar work is by turns brittle and jazzy, spiky and twirling, until he launches into a thoroughly guitar-heroic, wildly fuzzy solo. Meanwhile Nathaniel Dembelé on drums and Oumar Touré on bass (yup, it’s a veritable tower of Tourés) lay down a shuffling rhythm. Dembelé’s drumming may seem thoroughly Western in style, but the overall effect is subtly different, creating a singular sound.
Frontman Aliou Touré sings with conviction in both his own lingo and English, incorporating frequent call and response chants with his bandmates, while cavorting energetically about the stage. Now and then he also straps on a guitar to thicken the sound, as on their theme song ‘Songhoy’ itself, with its chunky riff.
Garba Touré reaches for an acoustic guitar for ‘Hometown’, which shows off their range with an almost hill country bluesy riff while conjuring unexpected chords and directions. In the next breath ‘Bamako’ is irresistibly funky, supplemented by trumpet and sax and featuring another sizzling guitar solo. ‘Sahara’, on which Iggy Pop of all people guested on their latest album Résistance, takes a blues meets punk line, with GT’s guitar alternately pinging and then gritty.
But it’s probably ‘Ai Tchere Bele’, from their first album Music In Exile, that really underlines their range. It’s a wacko collision of styles that recalls the wildness of early White Denim, with Aliou Touré’s dancing apparently infected by the spirit of Sam and Dave.
They close the night with an encore of ‘Voter’, from the new album, finishing the audience off with its pummelling riff. For a band which grew out of the hardest of times, escaping sharia law, Songhoy Blues have a life-affirming energy about them. “Music is the universal language” is a typical piece of between songs chat from Aliou Touré. On this evidence, he knows whereof he speaks.