Songhoy Blues tracked guitars and basses direct while recording in Bamako, Mali, partly because plugging in amps would blow the power. Their parts were later reamped and rerecorded in Paris.
American blues is indebted to Malian music, though nowadays it’s difficult to tell who influenced whom. “We were in Texas and had the opportunity to listen to music on the radio,” Garba says. “We found this music really similar to the way we play, both in terms of the melody as well as rhythmically. It is clear for us—based on the way we heard the blues played in the U.S.—that the music black people brought to the U.S. through slavery was Malian music. It has become more warped and exploited in the U.S., and it has changed a little bit, but for us it’s basically the same music.”
The primary distinction between American and Malian music is in their different approaches to groove. Western blues-based music places an obvious emphasis on the second and fourth beats of each measure (the backbeats). Malian music—or at least the music made by Songhoy Blues—doesn’t work that way. Although many songs on Music in Exile have a pulse of four or six beats per bar (and some tracks do emphasize the backbeat) the rhythms wind and weave. Accents land in places that are unusual and disorienting to Western ears. “I think that’s one of the most interesting things about the band,” Zinner says. “They are equally inspired by traditional Malian music and Western rock and blues music. There are fundamental differences in those influences and rhythms, and they are able to seamlessly integrate the two.”
Those cultural disparities were apparent when recording as well. “There were a few instances where I would feel the pulse of a song differently from where they were feeling it,” says Zinner. “’Wayei’ is a good example. It did my head in at first because the ‘one’ of that track was actually on the ‘and’ beat—but once I could understand and feel that, it was about adding percussion and rhythmic elements that could accentuate that groove without changing its core or thinking about math.”
According to Garba, the Western approach may be more programmed or analytical, whereas their way is more organic. “The issue is not whether the music is in 4/4 or 6/8 or whatever,” he says. “It is music from our inspiration, coming from our background, and we take it as it is, whatever the rhythm.”
Another distinction is repetition. Repetitive phrases are the basis of the band’s music, including the rhythm guitar parts, bass lines, drum grooves, lyrical content, call-and-response patterns, and even guitar solos. The repetition on Music in Exile creates a deep pocket, trance-like energy, and endless groove.
Witness the “lightning in a bottle” energy of Songhoy Blues in this live performance of three tracks from Music in Exile. Skip to 18:15 to see some of Garbe Touré’s fast-groove fretboard mastery.
Arabic-style melodies and phrasing play a role as well (listen to “Wayei” as an example). “There are many ethnicities in Mali,” says Garba. “Plenty of them from the North are influenced by Arabic music and culture. It’s normal in our music that sometimes we get into that, too.”
Despite differences in feel and approach, music is universal, and it’s the primary tool Songhoy Blues uses to talk about the ongoing crisis in Mali. “The main thing about our music and our message is to protest and talk about what’s not going well in Mali,” Garba says. “Our inspiration comes from our everyday life: our background, our social life, our country. Each time we create something, it is to talk about something.”
The French military has since forced the Islamists from power in Northern Mali, but the area remains unsafe and the Festival au Désert hasn’t returned.