Virtual Session: Songhoy Blues

Songhoy Blues' Oumar Touré joins Jill Riley for a virtual session. (MPR)

Songhoy Blues' Oumar Toure caught up with Jill Riley to talk about the wide range of influences heard on their records, and resisting with an optimistic outlook. They also performed a few songs from their upcoming record, Optimisme, out October 23.

Interview Transcript

JILL RILEY: Hey, this is Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show from Minnesota Public Radio and I'm really excited for the guest today. This is a band that we've been playing here on The Current and a band that I've been really interested to get to know, we've been playing a new song from the band Songhoy Blues and right now I'm joined by one of the members of Songhoy Blues. In fact we are connected Oumar Toure is connecting with me from Bamako. So Oumar, how are you doing? How are things there?

OUMAR TOURE: Yeah I'm good, hello everybody! I'm good. We're in Bamako, good.

Well that's good to hear. We have been playing this song called "Worry" on The Current and I just have to say, it's just such a great groove. I've read a number of music writers, and maybe even yourselves, describe your music as desert blues and I can kind of wrap my head around that and after hearing your music - I kind of understand it. But what does that mean to you? What does that description mean to you?

Yeah that's a real thing. It's something like Malian music. Malian, the people who live around the desert, which is Niger, which is Algeria. You can hear this kind of music from a lot of people. A lot of young bands, they are from this area. Around this area which is Niger, which is Algeria, which is Mauritania also. So it's like something like loose, but more Algeric Mauro desert influences. It why a lot of people call it desert blues but I think it's Malian music. I prefer this application.

So I can hear it in really the groove but, I mean you guys really bring the electric guitars to the forefront and that's what really attracts me about the band. So Songhoy Blues, can you just tell me, I get the blues part, and we talked about desert blues. But what is the meaning of Songhoy?

Songhoy is the biggest tribe in forty, fifty years or something in West Africa. Where we are from, it's our tribe. When we set up the band we were thinking about how to have a great name, and then we were thinking about why didn't we call ourselves Songhoy? As we are Songhoy people, we are Songhoy tribe. So we just took- Songhoy is the most description to say where we are from, who is us, which is why we take Songhoy. It's the biggest tribe.

I'm talking with Oumar Toure from Songhoy Blues and we're gonna hear a couple of songs. I know that you guys put together a couple videos for The Current audience and recorded some songs and so we're gonna hear a couple of those in a row and then we'll come back and talk some more about the band. We're playing this new song "Worry" and it is from the forthcoming record due out at the end of October so let's talk more. I'll talk more with Oumar Toure shortly from Songhoy Blues.

[music: "Worry" by Songhoy Blues]

[music: "Bamako" by Songhoy Blues]

It's The Current's Morning Show, I'm Jill Riley. You just heard a song right there called "Bamako" and in fact that's where my guest is calling in from and we're connecting. Again, the power of technology where we can connect me here in the Twin Cities and Oumar Toure of Songhoy Blues connecting from Bamako. Again thank you for taking the time to chat with The Current and to connect with us and talk about the band Songhoy Blues. So I had mentioned that you have a new record on the way. Now I say it "optimistic" and I look at the word now and I'm not even gonna try to pronounce it but how is it that you say the word? And wow, what a powerful word for the time that we're living in.

Basically all the album we made is around our history, is around what's happened in Mali, in Africa. When we made the first one, it was Music in Exile which is the perfect representation in 2012. Then when we made Resistance in 2015 it was the most difficult moment for Mali and the West African people to fight to raise up against the rebellions which happened in North Africa. Also, until right now we are in the same situation, but we think about how brave people in another generation, in another side of the resistance, which is optimism. To be an optimist is the long way, it is not a problem we are going to finish right now. People need to be resistant and people need to be on their good side and to be optimistic. They need to think about the decisions that are gonna be done one day, but we need to fight we need to make everything in each side, but we need to be very very very optimistic. It's why we call the album coming out Optimisme, and we invite the world to be very optimistic because a lot of problems are happening now such as Covid-19, to be optimistic also because we are sure we're gonna fight. We're gonna win. This is war against the Covid-19, against terrorism, battling the political side in Africa. We are sure we're gonna win all this. It's why we want to talk to the world about being optimists.

I'm talking with Oumar Toure from Songhoy Blues and certainly with what the people of Mali have been through, and you talk about some of that history. You know when you talk about going back to the first record Music in Exile and then Resistance and now Optimisme - optimistic, to have that feeling of optimism and the future, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more just about the formation of the band. What were things like in Mali? And talking a little bit more about what you were dealing with at the time and why you had to move and make this Music in Exile.

When we set up the band, we were a young band. Young musicians. We started school at the same time, we made music. We're all from north Mali. When we were back home, to make music in our hometown which is North Mali in 2012. When tourist people come and the band did all music and all activities of young guys, so we were thinking about how to protest. The setup of the band came from protesting. We want to protest, but we didn't know how to make that, how to have a big influence. So we took the guitars and we went to the clubs and played music and invited people to come join us and talk about problems happening in Mali. That gave us a big power. That is the condition that the band was born.

I'm talking with Oumar Toure from Songhoy Blues. So you form a band and really, like what a powerful tool. Just the tool of music to use your voice, and a voice of protest. My question is, here in the United States, how did I find out about your music? How did your music make it from Mali to the United States? I guess what sort of happened in your story that your music got an international audience?

[Africa Express] got us some projects. They were looking for the young band, the young generation of music in Africa. They were casting and they asked our band perform in that casting. We've were nominated and they invited us to London for the first time to come show what is the African Express new band they discovered. It's how we came to the U.K. for the first time and had labels who wanted to produce us, who wanted our music to be heard all around the world. Not just in Mali, so that's why we signed with the labels in U.K. after that we've been lucky to have Warner Atlantic, which is also for the U.S. Then radio started to play our music and I think we are very lucky to have a whole team because a lot of bands in Africa, they never have the chance we have. They perform all day in the clubs. Our connection with the rest of the world is because of Africa Express.

I was reading some names and I'm pretty familiar with playing music on the radio, like Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz took a interest in your band. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took an interest in your band and many others that really gave you an international platform. What I enjoy about your music is that I think there are so many different styles being represented in this kind of music that you make. You can hear that kind of traditional sound, that desert blues. But those guitar riffs, there's such a great combination of things happening for you. Were you really inspired by a lot of rock and roll music?

Yes, because when we were in Africa, when we were a young band, our generation started to use the internet. There was not a chance for the older generation to use the internet to be interested in what's happening around the world. That's why we had the chance to listen to a lot of music. Some bands are from the U.S., some band are from England - basically from Western countries. So when we listened to the band's songs, it's gonna affect us. You know, the electric guitar, we're gonna say, "Wow! I want to have this kind of song. I want to play this, like these kinds of guitars." I remember our guitar player Garba, he's a big fan of Jimi Hendrix. He's a big fan of BB King also, and Joe Bonamassa also. One of his best influences is Stevie Ray Vaughan. All this music, we listened. All these people, we listen a lot. That's going to affect our music but we have the traditional vibes, we have the traditional groove. For us, it's just a mix of two generations. Maybe the next generation of Mali is going to be more electric than us. We are in the middle.

Oumar Toure connecting with The Current from Bamako here on The Current. You talk about connecting past generations with the new. When you talk about the new, what a time for the new generation into Africa, especially in Mali, to be using their voice. That's something that I kind of read about you guys is that's really a message that you want to get across - is for the new generation to use their voice.

The countries around Mali influence a lot of Malian music, so the new generation have to keep Mali music -- to be safe. For the new generation they need to be very... they need to be very strong because the walls change. A lot of things coming all the time. For me they need to be very strong to keep Malian music going because there are a lot of good things in Malian music.

Oumar Toure from Songhoy Blues. I do want to urge people to not only check out your records: Music in Exile, Resitance, and the new one Optimisme, which is due out October 23. But there's a documentary out there that really does a great job of telling the story of Malian music and musicians called They Will Have To Kill Us First. That's a documentary that I have recently heard about and you're not the only musicians represented but a number of musicians telling the story of how to use music as a way of protest and how scary that idea can be.

It's very scary but when we made Music In Exile, when we were back home, we were very scared about battling North Mali because in North Mali there are not armies who control all the country so it's very difficult for us because we started protesting in Bamako, so when we were back it was after Music In Exile. So Music In Exile is a good opportunity for us to show how 2012 happened in Mali, in music's sight. It gave us a big opportunity to bring our story to people. To show how it was difficult for us and how music can be very important. How music can be very useful to talk for people who are not Mali people, for people who are so far from Mali. The project was with Johanna Schwartz, who came here to Mali. She was pregnant when she got here, this brave wife, you respect her. She's very brave. She came into Mali and filmed all the documentary about how music was banned in a lot of Mali. How the young banded, like us protesting against jihadists, against terrorists. Just music. Just playing in the clubs. Just talk to people. It was a great experience for us. People can still go to see this amazing documentary.

Again it's called They Will Have To Kill Us First and it's certainly an inspiring story and if you have never had to think about the fact that you could live in a place where music is all out banned and the way that you could be punished for even playing it or talking about it, please I urge you to learn about those stories and get a new perspective. A perspective from someone that I'm talking to right here, Oumar Toure from Songhoy Blues. I think our time is about up, again the new album is Optimisme out October 23rd. I so appreciate you Oumar, connecting with us from Bamako and I have one question for you before I let you go, is Toure a common name in Mali?

Yes it's common.

I ask that because I see it come up a few times in the band list here.

Yeah, yeah. It's common. A lot of people are called Toure, it's a common family name. In a lot of Mali you can see two big common names, which is Toure and Amega. So we are Toure, like Ali Farka Toure, one of our big inspirations.

Yeah I wondered about that, like, I wonder if somebody is a nephew or if there's a connection there.

Yeah Garba's father was playing with Ali Farka. He was Ali Farka's percussionist for all the times. He even studied at Ali Farka's house.

Oh so there is a connection there! That's pretty incredible.


Well I give my best wishes to the rest of the band and thank you so much again for connecting. Oumar Toure of Songhoy Blues. And I know that we're gonna hear one more song here on The Current.

Songs Played

03:57 Worry
07:16 Bamako
27:15 Dournia

Songs 1 and 3 are from Songhoy Blues' upcoming 2020 record Optimisme, out October 23 on Fat Possum. Song 2 is from their 2017 record Resistance.


Host - Jill Riley
Technical Director - Eric Romani
Producer - Jesse Wiza

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