Mali’s Songhoy Blues vs. the Grim Reaper
How guitarist Garba Touré and his band of refugees fled for their lives and found salvation in rocking, psychedelic desert blues—and made their new album, Optimisme, with producer Matt Sweeney.
Following a violent civil war and a failed military coup, and under the increasingly oppressive control of the Ansar Dine Islamist regime—which had imposed Sharia law and outlawed music in all forms in Northern Mali—guitarist Garba Touré left his home in Diré (a small town on the Niger River in the North) for the country’s capitol, Bamako, with all of his worldly belongings in a bag and his guitar on his back.
There, Touré met the men that would become his bandmates in Songhoy Blues—fellow refugees from the North whose lives were similarly upended by the conflict. The group forged a connection performing the traditional music of the Songhoy people for their fellow refugees as a salve and source of comfort, but eventually the band developed its own unique sound: a revved-up fusion of traditional Songhoy melodies and grooves with elements of the Western blues and rock the young men shared a fondness for.
Songhoy Blues’ music provided an ideal space for the four refugees to sing about the atrocities that had ravaged their homeland, and an outlet for cutting songs of resistance. But they also sang of hope for the future of their native Northern Mali and good times to come. In September 2013, the group was discovered playing in a Bamako nightclub by French producer Marc-Antoine Moreau, who, along with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, helped Songhoy Blues record a debut LP, 2015’s Music In Exile,with Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner and Moreau co-producing under the aegis of the Africa Express cultural collaboration non-profit.
The award-winning documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First tells the band’s harrowing and uplifting origin story in brilliant detail and is well worth a screening. And while the conflict sadly continues to smolder in Northern Mali, a lot has changed for Garba Touré and Songhoy Blues since being plucked from the sweaty clubs of Bamako.
On the steam of Music In Exile, Songhoy Blues became an international sensation, touring the world and playing major festivals like Glastonbury, opening for artists like Alabama Shakes and Julian Casablancas, and releasing a critically-acclaimed 2017 sophomore album, Résistance, which boasts a track featuring Iggy Pop.
At its core, Songhoy Blues’ ever-evolving take on what’s known as “desert blues” is a pure expression of rock ’n’ roll’s exuberance and youthful brashness but channeled through a radically different musical vocabulary than what most Western ears are familiar with. Touré’s virtuosic guitar work is the cornerstone of Songhoy Blues’ unique sound … and it’s also painfully cool. His playing is a blend of stuttering, percussive rhythm work, fluid and undulating melodies that fold over themselves, and searing blasts of Saharan shred that take rock-guitar heroics and twist them up into something altogether unique. While Garba Touré is deeply steeped in the Songhoy guitar tradition that once made fellow Northerner Ali Farka Touré a breakout star, Garba’s style has been tweaked and supercharged by the influence of Western greats like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. (No relation by the way. Touré is an extremely common surname in West Africa, though Garba’s father, Oumar Touré, played guitar and congas in Ali Farka’s band.)
With their new album, Optimisme, Songhoy Blues’ sound is fully-realized—tempered and focused by years of international touring. Recorded in a whirlwind six days at Brooklyn’s Strange Weather Studio under the care of prodigious guitarist, producer, and guitar culture gourmand Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Johnny Cash, Iggy Pop, and host/creator of the fabulous Guitar Moves web series) and engineer Daniel Schlett (the War On Drugs, Modest Mouse), Optimisme is Songhoy Blues’ most cohesive and incendiary statement, and a true point of arrival.
The album features the band’s first song written in English: an uplifting anthem of hope titled “Worry,” which serves as a spot of positivity in a set that’s chiefly concerned with the heaviest realities of war-torn Mali.
There’s a pathos and sincerity to Optimisme that is generally lacking in Western rock ’n’ roll these days, and global recognition has done nothing to blunt Songhoy Blues’ dedication to contributing to the resistance through its music. Optimisme’s songs discuss gravely serious matters like forced marriage (“Gabi”) and the exhausting struggle of the revolution (“Barre”), yet these songs are all still absolutely raucous, groove-laden rave-ups that sound like nothing else. Especially the fuzzed-out barnstormer “Badala.”
Unmistakably, Optimisme charts territory further beyond the margins of traditional Songhoy guitar music, beyond cheap exotica, and beyond the novelty Western music fans often make of guitar music from faraway lands—pushing a traditional culture into a new era, as Ali Farka Touré once did with his own exploration of blues. At a time when blues-based rock ’n’ roll has eaten its own tail, Optimisme reimagines guitar rock by way of the very West African cradle from which it first came.
Premier Guitar spoke with Garba Touré and Matt Sweeney by phone—with a little translation assistance from the band’s tour manger, Matt Taylor, on some follow-up questions for Touré—to get the inside story of crafting Songhoy Blues’ vibrant new album. Despite the miles and cultural disparities between New York City and Bamako, the bond between these kindred guitarmen is strong, and the mutual respect they share palpable. Touré and Sweeney went deep on the writing and recording process, did a deep dive on Touré’s background and philosophy as a guitarist, spoke about the minimalist gear used to track Optimisme, and discussed why an artist with Sweeney’s remarkable resume has found himself so deeply under the spell of desert blues.
Could you tell me how Songhoy Blues approaches writing songs and if that process changed at all on Optimisme?
Garba Touré: We always write songs together. Usually someone comes in with a subject to sing about or I’ll come in with a guitar riff, but anyone in the band can propose an idea to start with. Once we get it as a band, everyone’s input is heard and we all add our ideas. Our songs can come from many places and any instrument, but we build them together all the time. For this album, after we wrote the songs and did demos, we listened to them with Matt [Sweeney], and he helped us to build each track and make the songs sound their best.
Matt Sweeney: West African musicians don’t have the obsession with listening to albums like Westerners do. Music is this living, breathing thing in Tuareg and Songhoy cultures. There isn’t this primacy with the album as an art form, so what’s cool about working with Songhoy Blues is that while these guys are usually really about music in-the-moment, on this record they were very aware they were making an album, and that can be a bigger thing than just capturing songs.
TIDBIT: In a true cross-cultural collaboration, the new Songhoy Blues album was recorded in Brooklyn with a production team that made its bones in alt-rock, but Optimisme is rooted firmly in Mali’s Songhoy tradition—and juiced by fuzztone guitar.
Bamako is a place where people like to party and it has a sophisticated nightlife, so these guys are really cool and they know what it’s like to go out and drink beer in a room with music and action. The overarching concept that tied this record together was that we all wanted it to feel like Songhoy Blues taking us out for a night in Bamako, with each song being like walking into a different club or alleyway. I wanted it to feel sweaty, live, and exciting. And a little dangerous. They were totally with that idea. So with that concept in mind, we were able to start thinking of it as an album, rather than just a few songs being tracked, and the performances were definitely better for it. We had a conversation about increasing all the tempos and focused a lot on how we could make each song super-exciting and make this record feel super hyped-up. They had such great ideas to that end.
How did you track to get that hyped-up feel?
Sweeney: Live, for the most part. I literally got off a plane and went straight to the studio on day one, and the guys had been working all day. The one thing that they had put down was “Badala,” which really blew my mind and set the tone for the record. The guys would show me the song, I’d make suggestions, and we’d take things apart and put them back together as a team.
We’d usually take like an hour to rearrange a song and then cut it live with a scratch vocal, then we went back to add real lead vocals, group vocals, and we did a day or two of small overdubs and Garba shredding. They work really well together and are super-efficient. We were working really hard and only had six days, but we never got hung up on anything. For example “Worry” came in as this kind of lope-y thing that had like a reggae feel. And that one was like, “Okay! Great lyrics and melody, but what can we do to better support them?” Garba came up with that guitar riff literally on the spot, and I went “What the fuck?! That’s insane!” and then we had it.
We really had a lot of fun turning these songs inside out in a very spontaneous way, but then recording them quickly to capture that spark. The same kind of thing played out on “Pour Toi,” with that big tempo change in the middle. We worked out how to maximize the song’s energy as a team. There was some thought put into how these songs would feel to play live, and “Pour Toi” is a good example of the live consideration changing a song’s vibe for the better, with that big scene/tempo change.
Touré: When we built “Pour Toi,” it started with that first part and we decided it needed a second part with much more energy. We built that bridge/second part with Matt, and had two parts to choose from for the second half, and we went for the higher energy one. Recording in a great studio like Strange Weather was such a good experience for us. Daniel Schlett was very good to work with, and a great sound engineer, and really knew how to get the sounds we wanted. Matt was really the maestro. He was there early every morning to really help us create a great album.