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Songhoy Blues

  and They Will Have to Kill Us First film documentary 

"The auditorium erupted into a joyful celebration of music and the part it plays in all our lives, whether we are in Sheffield or Timbuktu."

Friday 26th February 2016

The Auditorium, Sheffield University Students Union


Photographs above by Danielle Mustarde.

This TalkingGigs event probably generated the most excitement of any gig so far - partly the stature of the band but also the unique opportunity to see them alongside the amazing documentary which featured the band and other Malian musicians, tracing the impact of the 2012 jihadist take-over of Northern Mali.
So, what better way of reporting such a stunning occasion than reporting the words of 2 independent reviewers ... thanks to both!
First from Liam Izod (published on   

Where were the blues born? Were its rough-hewn riffs formed from the mud of the Mississippi delta, or do its origins lie in Africa, along the river Niger? Musicological conundrums aside, it is the people of the Niger basin who have a greater need for the blues’ cathartic lament today. In the West African state of Mali In 2012, a separatist movement snowballed into a radical Islamist campaign that conquered two-thirds of the country. Music – which provides the heartbeat of Malian culture – was banned under an extreme interpretation of Sharia law.


The response of Mali’s musicians is documented in the film They Will Have to Kill Us First, which provides the evening’s first act, playing to a teeming auditorium within Sheffield University’s Student Union. The film sets up Malian band Songhoy Blues to tell the story live, inspiring the audience to a studious engagement with Malian musical culture that gives way to dancing in the aisles.


They Will Have to Kill Us First opens with Songhoy Blues on scooters, cruising through the capital Bamako like Malian Mods. They carry their guitars with them, as if ready to unleash drive-by grooves on the occupants of the red dirt pavements. The film offers a music-as-unifying-force narrative amidst an exploration of the country’s near total fracture. As a young band drawn from different parts of Mali, Songhoy Blues seem to offer the best hope of a modern Mali that transcends the disunity. By the end of the film the young quartet have been picked up by the Damon Albarn driven Africa Express project and wowed the European festival scene. They have shown no signs of stopping since, releasing their debut album Music in Exile last year to considerable acclaim.

Songhoy Blues’ meteoric rise and youthful swagger bears comparison to a band that has graced many of the Steel City’s stages, the Arctic Monkeys. Where Alex Turner took inspiration from police riot vans, Songhoy Blues had machine-gun toting Toyota pickups to contend with. The band’s matinee idol impression is reinforced by the boy-band bar stools they occupy for their acoustic set. Since this is a Talking Gig – which offers reflection as well as rock – the initial atmosphere suits the lecture theatre-like venue and student dominated audience. Journalist Andy Morgan takes on the role of professor, skilfully spinning tales of Mali’s spirit world and medieval empire, which enrich the audience’s understanding of the music.


If you have heard of one Malian musician it will surely be guitar giant Ali Farka Touré, who emerged like a Hendrix of the Sahara in the 1970s, his music both urgent and antique. The African continent is commonly represented as the body of a guitar, and the iconic instrument remains the king of Malian music.

There is a certain guitar timbre that unmistakably evokes West Africa, its bright sound still characteristic of the DIY twang of the proto-guitars assembled from petrol drums and brake cables on the streets of Timbuktu and Gao. Songhoy’s guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – summons the timeless tone from his acoustic guitar. Garba’s rippling riffs enter into dialogue with charismatic vocalist Aliou Touré, punctuating his vocal lines with short solos delivered in stuttering style.

Unexpected breaks and tempo changes enliven a blues template that can feel formulaic in its strictest western form. The band perform album track ‘Al Hassidi Terei’, which begins with a ‘Stairway to Heaven’ like arpeggio before igniting, like one of those well-worn moped engines, into a raucous gallop of a groove.


For the last three numbers Songhoy Blues rock out, kicking away their stools and summoning the audience to their feet. Nat Dembélé’s percussion playing and Oumar Touré’s bass then come into their own, their grooves bouncing across bar-lines to conduct the crowd’s convulsions. Amidst the celebratory atmosphere we recall Mali’s trauma, summed up by Aliou’s vocals on ‘Desert Melodie’; “Once upon a time Mali was a land of unity, now they want to divide us”. If there is a force that will help bring the country back together, it is up there on stage, as Songhoy Blues rock Sheffield.

Sometimes a gig is far more than entertainment. I was aware of a film about the plight of music and musicians from Mali through social media. ‘They Will have To Kill Us First’ is a documentary made by director Johanna Schwartz, released in 2015. The idea of showing the film alongside a live performance and interview with one of the bands featured, Songhoy Blues, is genius.


Thank you to Talking Gigs (‘Discovery through music’) for making it happen. Taking a powerful and often harrowing documentary about the civil war within Mali and the role of jihadists in brutally banning music there, and showing it alongside the joyous music from one of Mali’s brightest and best new bands is an amazing combination. Informative, inspirational and full of insights. It’s not often you see the warning "features strong real violence" at the beginning of a music documentary. Taking military operational film, news reels and thoughtfully filmed and edited original footage, this is a film that helps explain the politics and events of the last few years in Mali, following the stories of individual music makers affected by the ban. It’s about refugees and returning home, keeping the faith and sharing the message.


It begins with the ban on all music imposed in 2012 when the jihadists joined forces with the MNLA in the north of the country. Radio stations and venues were closed down. Malian music has had a huge impact on the World Music scene, with many of its musicians becoming favourites on the festival and concert scene throughout Europe. Imagine a life without music. Even worse, imagine fleeing for your life because you are a musician. Singer Khaira Arby says "music is like oxygen for human beings" and this is particularly true in Malian culture. Music has been the channel of communication and cohesion from the traditional past to the evolving present, keeping the different tribes represented in this fascinating country together. Disco, another woman artist, fled to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso where she used her music to boost morale for the women there.


Alongside their stories runs the story of Songhoy Blues, a group of young musicians who refused to be intimidated by the fear and destruction of sharia law. Connected through family links to other Malian musicians, representing different ethnic groups within Mali, they named themselves after one of the tribes. Their music was taken up by Brian Eno and Damon Albarn. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has produced their first album, aptly named ‘Music in Exile’. The film is about journeys. Fighting the fear, the women singers from Mali head back to Timbuktu. Khaira uses her persuasive powers and influence as a famous singer to plan a concert , the first since the ban on music has been lifted. Disco returns from refugee camp in Burkina Faso to join her.


Spreading the message, Songhoy Blues leave Mali for London, recording their first album, and appearing to great acclaim at Glastonbury and the Albert Hall.


The film has a positive ending, with the sheer joy of that free concert in Timbuktu. The political difficulties are not yet fully resolved, but music is back where it should be. It’s Disco’s quote that provides the title for the film.


The interview and performance section of the evening saw the members of Songhoy Blues seated on stage, introduced and interviewed by Andy Morgan, the former manager of Tinariwen, who considers Songhoy Blues as the cream of contemporary Malian music. Conducted in French, translated into English, it’s an approach that worked surprisingly smoothly. Film clips and photos illustrated some of the topics. The cross cultural nature of World Music was to the fore. This Talking Gig idea is wonderful for giving a deeper and wider understanding of the musicians and their cultural roots.


When I was a child Timbuktou was a place full of mystery, remote and obscure. I now know that it has a rich and significant culture and history, combining animism and Islam, sorcerers and soothsayers in its mix of tradition and modernity. As Ali, the band's lead singer, said more than once, "If you don’t know where you have been, you don’t know where you are going. Their culture is about defusing differences and creating unity among the different ethnic groups represented in Mali. Musicians are the walls of the house, bringing everyone together. At the end of the interview section, which had been interspersed with performance of their music, the band was asked to play on their feet. So they did, and the auditorium erupted into a joyful celebration of music and the part it plays in all our lives, whether we are in Sheffield or Timbuktu

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