African music beats at the heart of much of American popular songcraft, but perhaps nowhere are the overlapping cultural crosscurrents more apparent than in the music from the landlocked northwestern African nation of Mali.
Often built around a swirling blend of acoustic and electric guitars, it speaks to Westerners raised on rock and blues while simultaneously maintaining a rhythmic undertow that feels like a call across the Sahara to more ancient times.
It’s no surprise then that the Festival in the Desert, an annual celebration of Malian music in the northern city of Timbuktu, attracted crowds of foreigners and even the likes of Robert Plant and Jimmy Buffett. Director Martin Scorsese said that the late master guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who ranked No. 37 on Spin’s list of the greatest guitarists of all time, was said to be carrying on a tradition that bears “the DNA of the blues.”
The duo Amadou & Mariam, singer Salif Keita, guitarist Vieux Farka Toure (Ali’s son) and Tinariwen — consisting of members of a traditionally nomadic tribal people called Tuareg — are popular enough to tour the U.S. and Europe regularly. Tinariwen just played in North Texas at the Granada Theater last November.
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But much of this heritage was threatened in 2012 when jihadists took control of the northern sections of the country, instituting Sharia law and outlawing all music, whether sacred or secular. The Festival in the Desert was put on hold and many musicians fled south to the country’s capital of Bamako, where they began to speak out against the creeping tide of tyranny. (With the help of the French, the Malian government reclaimed the breakaway territories in 2013.)
Two projects — a film and a band — are bringing news of this struggle to the U.S. The documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First, which had its American premiere at South by Southwest in March, is a moving and haunting look at the country’s upheaval through the eyes of its musicians. It should receive a theatrical release later this year.
One of the groups profiled, Songhoy Blues, has now just released its first album on Atlantic, the aptly titled Music in Exile, and launches its first headlining U.S. tour next month. The group plays the Austin City Limits festival in October.
The band, which had previously been in the U.S. to open for Alabama Shakes, was recently the subject of a feature in Billboard that asked, “Can Mali’s Songhoy Blues connect with a Black Keys audience? Atlantic is banking on it.”
We recently caught up with the film’s director, Johanna Schwartz, and Songhoy Blues singer Aliou Toure (no relation to Ali).
Songhoy Blues singer Aliou Toure remembers what things were like before the arrival of the jihadists.
“The north was very calm and everything was fine. People were living normally and music was a part of the culture,” he says by phone in French, interpreted through a translator. “It was very important and everything happened around culture and music.”
Then he had to flee to Bamako. But there was an up side: He met up with guitarist Garba Toure, bassist Oumar Toure, and drummer Nathanael Dembele (the Toures are not related) and formed Songhoy Blues. They began to develop a fan base for their propulsive Afro-rock.
“When we started to play in bars and clubs, people really liked it. The good thing is that there were many different people from different tribes and ethnicities,” he says. “There were Songhay people, Tuareg people.”
Songhoy Blues came to the attention of Africa Express — the project from British musician Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) that pairs Western musicians such as Brian Eno and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner with African musicians. Zinner signed on to produce the group’s debut album.
Of all the Mali acts that have gained some visibility in the West, Songhoy Blues is the most musically accessible to American ears. The big, crunching guitars could fit in easily on rock radio even though the lyrics aren’t in English.
While Songhoy Blues doesn’t have Tinariwen’s hypnotic dreaminess or Ali Farka Toure’s rustic traditionalism, Aliou Toure says the band is an extension of Mali’s fascination with guitar music. “The music from the north is very melodic and they used to use different string instruments,” he says. “But when the guitar came along, it was easy to play and really close to the instrument they used to play before.”
And despite their rock style, Toure feels the music is still rooted in the group’s homeland.
“If you want to talk about rock, we need to talk about the blues. And if you’re talking about the blues, you’re talking Ali Farka Toure and all the big names from the north of Mali,” he says.
“We play a very expressive kind of music that’s based on the tradition of the north of Mali. The music is the blues and the fact that it’s more energetic is because it’s being made by young guys and it becomes rock.”
Though northern Mali is no longer in the throes of war, Toure says things are still “confused.” Combining that with the siren song of the West might lead some to think that Songhoy Blues will pack and move. Not so fast.
“It’s our country,” he says. “We don’t want to leave our country.”
Come for the party, stay for the war
London-based filmmaker Johanna Schwartz had no intention of making a movie when she first planned to go to Mali in 2012. She was just going as a tourist to hang out and enjoy the Festival in the Desert.
“There’s something about the sound and the rhythm,” she says of her attraction to Malian music.
But then hostilities broke out between the Malian government and the rebels. That’s when the documentarian, who had been making African-themed documentaries for the BBC, knew she had a job to do. After landing, she hooked up with locals, got the lay of the land and decided to tell the story through the eyes of the country’s beleaguered musicians.
“The first time I went, I just went with a credit card and a hand-held camera. It was more of a research trip than anything else,” she says. “We just felt our way through it, there was no time to plan. It was evolving as the story was evolving.”
The four acts featured in They Will Have To Kill Us First cover a range of Malian styles, from the more traditionalist female singers Khaira Arby and Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar, male wedding singer Moussa Sidi, and the more rock-oriented quartet Songhoy Blues.
She was already a fan of Arby, but it was a local contact who suggested, “‘my mom’s friend’s a singer, Khaira Arby.’ And so we kind of stumbled into her, which was amazing.”
The other acts were suggested by Andy Morgan, author of the book Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali, who ended up co-writing the film with Schwartz.
The movie balances the musicians’ hope and determination with often graphic conflict footage. Much of the latter is provided by others who were more familiar with the territory, but Schwartz still had to be careful.
“When we would arrive in Bamako, we would take the temperature of how things felt and listened to our local producers,” she says. “They would tell us where you can’t go and we wouldn’t go. Sometimes we’d have to change places and film something else because it wasn’t safe where we wanted to go.”
The film is starting to make waves with cinema and music fans: it recently won best documentary at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, and Zinner, of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, is coordinating the soundtrack, which will be out later this year.
But Schwartz was adamant that she wanted it to debut in Texas.
“We raced to finish it because South by Southwest was the festival we wanted the film shown at,” she says. “It’s about music and talking about music, so it felt right for us.”
Mad for Mali
If you’re interested in exploring the music of Mali but don’t know where to start, here are some CD suggestions:
Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu: Toure’s collaboration with the American guitarist is a beautiful, transporting work.
Vieux Farka Toure, Fondo: Ali Farka Toure’s son is also a masterful guitarist, although he works in a more fiery, electric style.
Amadou & Mariam, Dimanche á Bamako: This infectious set, produced by world music-Latin star Manu Chao, is essential.
Tinariwen, Emmaar: Recorded in and around California’s Joshua Tree National Park and featuring guests like Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and rapper/poet Saul Williams, this is the band’s most accessible album while still maintaining the swirling, Saharan mystique.
Oumou Sangare, Seya: Sangare’s powerful, soulful vocals make her one of Mali’s most noteworthy singers.