After a civil conflict in 2012, Islamic jihadists forced many to flee Northern Mali when they imposed an extreme version of Shariah law on the region. Among other things, radio stations were destroyed and all non-religious music was banned.
Exiled in the West African nation’s capital of Bamako, Songhoy Blues was born. Vocalist Aliou Touré, guitarist Garba Touré, bassist Oumar Touré and drummer Nathanael Dembélé (no relation) initially formed the band in a refugee camp and haven’t looked back since.
First playing clubs in Bamako, they soon appeared on a compilation album put together by Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur). They were introduced to Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner on the project, and he helped the quartet release their debut, Music in Exile, in 2015. Former Strokes front man Julian Casablancas released the album in North America through his own Cult Records label, and the band also appeared in the documentary film, They Will Have To Kill Us First.
Songhoy Blues has gone on to play Glastonbury and Bonnaroo, open for Alabama Shakes, and release a follow-up album, Résistance, earlier this year through Fat Possum Records.
While the band still deals with things like recent visa issues that caused them to miss a couple of gigs in Canada and Boston, the guitar-driven Malian foursome is hitting their stride, and will spend the rest of 2017 touring in North America, Europe, and Thailand.
PACIFIC recently caught up with front man Aliou Touré ahead of the band’s stop at Belly Up Tavern on Wednesday.
PACIFIC: How long have you lived with the songs of Résistance?
ALIOU TOURÉ: Well, some of the tracks were written even before our first album. Some of them came from rehearsal. Some of them are really brand new.
Is the creative process continuous for you?
We always think about the next set-up - even when we are sleeping (laughs). It’s all about this moment we live in. And it’s kind of like this moment is already done, so we have this challenge to figure out the next set-up; the next level.
Big stages or intimate clubs?
For us, playing the clubs is very important. People are much more close to the band. At festivals, you never have the time to say “hi.” In clubs, when you finish playing, you get a chance to meet fans, and more interesting people. It’s also where venue promoters, booking agents, radio promoters, can come down and get a chance to chat with the artists. That’s very important for us - much more than at the festivals.
When: 8 p.m. October 18
Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
How long have you guys been making music together?
Four years. Four-and-a-half years.
And you’ve traveled the world in that time.
Oh, yeah! We’ve been to many, many places.
That’s crazy. Only five years and things are very different.
Yes. Very different. The first album came through (Mali capital) Bamako, it spreads through Africa from there, and that’s it. There we go.
Your band was essentially born from political unrest. Do you see what’s happening in Mali in other parts of the world?
I mean, we all have the same kind of occupation. We all have the same kind of caution about the political situation around the world, which is about terrorism. Like, what happened in Las Vegas was ridiculous. It’s really crazy. This is the kind of stuff that is happening around the world everywhere - and most in Mali. But we are used to living like that since we were little - with civil wars, attacks, and all that kind of bulls**t. But we all have the same kind of worries of going through it. We all have the same objective.
It helps to work it out through music as well.
The people who are doing these things - Las Vegas, Mali, Paris, London, everywhere - are the same kind of people who were trying to ban music in Mali a few years ago. And that pushed us a lot to talk about the situation. It made it an objective for us to talk about it and figure it out. If you take all of the music around the world - reggae, blues, rock and hip-hip - they all started from some kind of situation like revolution. When you look at the story, like how the blues comes to America from Africa, the slave people played music just to satisfy the nostalgia they had for their homeland. This is how the blues came. Rock, reggae, hip-hop - it all comes from some kind of revolution. Our music comes from the same type of situation, and it gave us a subject to talk about.
Do you know what you’d be doing if the band never took off?
I don’t know (laughs). I never think about it. I just follow destiny. Everything happens for a reason. Why turn that reason around?