It isn’t often you get to watch a band that started out as refugees in their own country. Songhoy Blues, playing live, bring a natural enthusiasm to their music which has been variously described as ‘desert rock’ and ‘Africa blues rock’ but is difficult to isolate and label. It is more in the way of the traditional Malian groove (think Amadou & Mariam, but much faster), courtesy of Oumar Touré on bass guitar and Nathanael Dembélé on drums, supplemented by occasionally frenetic guitar licks from Garba Touré, who has many of the attributes of Hendrix.
Much of that enthusiasm comes from singer and occasional guitarist Aliou Touré, of the trilby hat and limbo moves. Indeed, the three-at-the-back line-up of Touré, Touré and Touré, with solid attacking support from Dembélé, together representing Bamako United, would be more than a match for most Premier League teams.
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While ‘the groove’ is evident throughout the evening they are essentially a western guitar band, influenced in their youth by John Lee Hooker, The Beatles, and, yes, Hendrix. There is a consistent return to the blues with standard western rhythms, guitar and bass picking out much the same notes, but on several occasions the set is punctuated by very rapid and complex African beats supporting louder and much more powerful tunes that end in a crescendo of notes while other songs are more in the way of a jam than a structured piece.
With their background, it is hardly surprising that there is a message in most of their work and that message usually concerns the need to “come together”, as with the song ‘One Colour.’ Nothing new there, they’re following ably in the tradition of McCartney and Wonder’s ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ Blue Mink’s ‘Melting Pot’ and many other such tunes. But unfortunately, that message is lost because either the vocals aren’t in English, or that English is so accented the words are indistinguishable, while the insistent repetition of “together we can!” has political overtones that might better be avoided.
Indeed the few disappointments of the evening – apart from the lack of an encore – arise not from the excellent atmospheric and very danceable music but from what begin as entreaties to love thy neighbour but eventually become enjoinders. One heartfelt statement is usually more than adequate but when it is repeated between every song compassion fatigue quickly sets in. As for the invitation to visit Mali (“it’s easier for you to get there than it was for us to come here” [really?] and “we’ll help sort out your visas”, well let’s just say it isn’t something the Foreign Office is happy to support right now.
Putting aside these distractions, Songhoy Blues certainly don’t disappoint musically and on the night send everyone out into a freezing night feeling warm on the inside.