Four sharply dressed young men armed with a bunch of great tunes, guitar, drums, bass and vocals and a hell of a story to tell, meet The Songhoy Blues whose album Music In Exile has been one of my real favourites this year. Actually I think Music In Exile is the most joyous life-affirming LPs I’ve heard in an age, but don’t just take my word for it, here’s a live version of my favourite track, ‘Soubour’:
Now is it just me or does it not just begin like something off Powerage?* then it takes off into heaven as far as I am concerned, that beat, those harmonies, that slamming guitar! I know I’m a regular sufferer of chronic hyperbole but this is just perfect music. In fact it’s perfect +1. It makes me dance, it makes me happy and I get to play air guitar at one point – although I will never, ever play air guitar again whilst driving**.
As the extensive sleevenotes*^ by the, ever excellent, Andy Morgan lay bare, this music, this joy, is something of a counter-attack against all the shit and misery happening in Mali at the moment. Three members of the band were forced to flee their homelands in the North to escape the Islamist insurgency. Guitarist Garba Touré fled because he was told in no uncertain terms by fighters that music was now a sin and that he risked lashes, or far worse, if he was ever caught playing. Rather than grieve over their exile the band members found each other and decided to play themselves to a better place, gaining a ready audience amongst all the other displaced peoples in the city.
Then Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project came to call and the band were thrown into the orbit of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner, who produced Music In Exile and plays on a lot of it too. I have to say that he does an absolutely sterling job too, never Westernising the sound too much, just keeping a really good, rich sound throughout; rather similar to the great job Dan Auerbach did on Bombino Nomad.
Music In Exile sounds like a city album to me, it doesn’t have that aching expansive desert sound you find in a lot of Malian music^, there’s a lot more hustle and jitter in these grooves, or maybe that’s just young men’s impatience shining through the layers. Take the fast shuffle of second track ‘Irganda’, a shuffle that builds over some glorious vocal harmonies to a lightning-fingered bit of guitar picking. Or take ‘Al Hassidi Terei’ a slower, more percussive number which again builds and builds to (you guessed it) another soaring solo, one to get me shuffling arhythmically, this. I’m also a sucker for the more traditional sounding ‘Ai Tchere Bele’.
For all the guitar-slinging that’s going down in these grooves, drummer Nat Dembélé is the band member who stands out the most to me. Whether driving hard on the more upbeat numbers or the slower groove driven numbers like ‘Jolie’ he’s absolutely immaculate. Although, to puncture my own argument again (my favourite track this morning) is the plaintive guitar and vocal only, ‘Mali’, which just aches.
It’s a pet topic of mine and I know I’ll have bored you ass-numb about it before, but hey, there is no such thing as ‘world music’ in its strictest, old-skool sense, anymore. Take Bombino, a man who talks of trying to copy Mark Knopfler’s licks whilst living in a camp in Libya, or the refracted blues of, the mighty, Tinariwen; the blues come floating home to Mali, via John Lee Hooker a century later. The electric guitar is not an indigenous African instrument for Chrissakes! People do not live in a vacuum, young folk constantly want their own music, something that sings in their blood, something that can also live with an appreciation of their elders’ culture – something faster. No, what we have here and now instead of ‘world music’ is a full ‘world of music’, all the fascinating new shapes that are born when different types and cultures of music fuse together, Songhoy Blues talk of Tupac, the Beatles and BB King, in the same breath as Ali Farka Touré. Did I remember to tell you I love it, yet?
But you don’t listen to music to appreciate it on an intellectual/cultural level, I’m extrapolating wildly here from a very small sample but I think I can safely say that the sole purpose for listening to music is to dance to it in your kitchen. Music In Exile passes this test easily, if I didn’t have to sit to type this I would be gyrating somewhere in the vicinity of the dishwasher at this very moment.
In fact cue up ‘Soubour’ again and watch me go!
*just got it, it sounds like the very beginning to ‘Sin City’.
**after listening to this track on the way to work this morning, I have added ‘Air guitar car = Bad’, to the list of things-to-be-avoided-because-they-could-really-hurt; along with ‘Air guitar treadmill = Bad’ and ‘Air guitar while wife talking = Bad (apparently)’.
*^Sleevenotes!! Surely, I don’t need to tell you again how much I love sleevenotes!!
^Apart from the melancholy sweetness of their track ‘Desert Melodie’, but I’m ignoring this as it ruins my theory^^.