songhoy blues

Songhoy Blues in Bamako, Mali, where Garba Touré [far left] and Oumar Touré [far right] formed the group after fleeing Mujahadeen-occupied territory.
Photo by Andy Morgan

How Mali’s refugee crisis inspired a brilliant new “desert blues” band.

The Timbuktu region of Northern Mali was once home to a vibrant and diverse music scene. The area gave birth to the “desert blues”—a hybrid of American blues influences and traditional West African musics. Influential figures like guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, the Grammy-winning Tinariwen, and Afropop superstar Salif Keita hail from there. Music is ingrained in the area’s cultural DNA.

But that changed in 2012. On the heels of civil war and what the BBC called “an inconclusive military coup,” Islamists seized control of Northern Mali, imposed sharia law, and outlawed music. “We, the Mujahideen, henceforth forbid the broadcasting of any Western music,” an Islamist rebel declares in They Will Have to Kill Us First, a film about the plight of Mali’s musicians. “We have informed all radio station owners: We do not want Satan’s music.”

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