A guitarist fleeing from a civil war is determined to keep playing, despite restrictions in his country.
Garba Touré and his guitar were a familiar sight on the streets of Diré, a dusty town on the banks on the Niger, upstream from Timbuktu. But when armed jihadists took control of northern Mali last year, he knew it was time to leave.
"The first rebel group to arrive was the MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad], but they weren't against music, so there was no bad feeling between them and the population," he tells me over the phone from Bamako, Mali's capital.
"But then Ansar Dine [a local armed Islamist group, whose name translates as 'followers of the faith'] came and chased them out. They ordered people to stop smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and playing music. Even though I don't smoke or drink, I love the guitar, so I thought: 'This isn't the moment to hang around. I have to go south.'"
Like thousands of refugees, Garba grabbed a bag, his guitar and boarded a bus to Bamako. His father, Oumar Touré, a musician who had played congas for Mali's guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, stayed behind with the family. The hardline Islamist gunmen drove music underground. The penalties for playing or even just listening to it on your cellphone were a public whipping, a stint in an overcrowded jail, or worse.
"When I arrived in Bamako the mood wasn't great," Garba says. "Different army factions were fighting each other. There were guns everywhere. All we heard was the scream of weapons. We weren't used to that."
Garba and some other musician friends from the north decided they couldn't succumb to the feeling that their lives had been shipwrecked by the crisis. They had to form a band, if for no other reason than to boost the morale of other refugees in the same situation. "We wanted to recreate that lost ambience of the north and make all the refugees relive those northern songs."
That's how Songhoy Blues was born. "Songhoy" because Garba Touré, lead vocalist Aliou Touré and second guitarist Oumar Touré, although unrelated to each other – Touré is as common as Smith or Jones in northern Mali – all belong to the Songhoy people, one of the main ethnicities in the north. And "Blues" not only because northern Mali is the cradle of the blues and its music is often referred to as "the desert blues", but also because Garba and his mates are obsessed by that distant American cousin of their own blues. "My father used to make me listen to Jimi Hendrix. He's one of my idols. But I also listen BB King and John Lee Hooker a lot."
After signing up drummer Nathanael Dembélé from the local conservatoire, Songhoy Blues hit the Bamako club and maquis (a kind of local bar restaurant) circuit with their raucous guitar anthems dedicated to peace and reconciliation. People flocked to see them, not only fellow Songhoy, but also Tuareg and other northern ethnicities. Even southerners came.
Anybody familiar with the enmity between the Songhoy and Tuareg peoples left behind by Mali's recent civil war will appreciate how inspiring it must have been to see Tuareg and Songhoy youth wigging out together in a Bamako bar.
In September, an uncle told Garba that a group of European and American musicians and producers were coming to town under the banner of Africa Express. Garba called Marc-Antoine Moreau, one of the Africa Express organisers, and – after passing an informal audition – Songhoy Blues were introduced to Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
"Marco told us that Nick was a big American guitarist and asked us to collaborate with him. So the next day we went into the studio and did some takes with Nick. Everything went well, no problem. He's a very simple person; a great guitarist but really modest."
The word "simple" is just about the greatest compliment a Malian can pay to another person. In the Malian French patois it means honest, down-to-earth and solid as a rock.
"We just walked into the studio not knowing what to expect," Zinner recalls. "There was just one amp between all of us, so it was like: 'What are we gonna do here?' But then they showed up, sat down, said 'Hi', and 30 seconds later they were playing music, amazing music."
One result of these sessions is a track called Soubour, which means "patience". "We're asking the refugees to have patience," Garba says. "Without patience, nothing is possible."
A video of Soubour featuring Zinner and friends has gone viral. It is the rawest, spikiest and most electrifying dollop of desert R&B you're likely to hear this year or next, but it remains proudly Malian and African.
Working with musicians who had just seen music outlawed in their homeland was a humbling experience for Zinner. "It's impossible for a Westerner like myself to imagine it," he says. "Like, truly unfathomable. And knowing the reasons why a lot of the musicians who we were working and hanging out with had come to Bamako added another dimension to the whole experience … a real intensity."
Like the majority of Malian Muslims, Garba has no truck with the attitude to music taken by hardline Salafist Muslims. "The world without music? It would be like a prison, right?" he says. "Music causes no harm and, what's more, you can educate an entire population using music. Maybe in previous generations, music could have been condemned by religion, but not now."
Africa Express has invited Songhoy Blues to London to appear at the launch of Maison des Jeunes, the album of recordings made in October during the Bamako trip. Songhoy Blues and other emerging Malian talents, such as the seraphim-voiced Kankou Kouyaté, who is also appearing at the launch, feature alongside Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Ghostpoet, Zinner and an eclectic mix of other artists and producers. To Garba and his fellow band members the experience has been like a dream.
"There we were living in the north," he says. "We were told that if we played music we could get our hands chopped off. Then we arrived in Bamako, in a state of emergency. We had to go to the ministry of the interior to ask for permission to play. But then, by the grace of God, the atmosphere returned. Africa Express came and we were invited to play in London. Really and truly, it's an explosive joy for us. We can't even begin to explain that joy." – © Guardian News & Media 2013