Mali’s Songhoy Blues Brings the Fighting Spirit of Resistance, Seeking Empowerment With ‘Optimisme’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

By now most of us are familiar with the great blues-based music, oft trance-like music that emanates from the war-torn, chronically divisive Mali in West Africa. You know the artists – Tinarawen, Ali Farke Toure, Afel Boucoum, Omou Sungare, Toumani Diabete, and many others, not to mention albums recorded there by Eric Bibb, Bela Fleck, and others.

Over the past decade one of the country’s most important bands is Songhoy Blues, a unit that incorporates traditions but leans more heavily toward blues-rock and brash rock n’ roll than the mentioned bands and artists. Their distinct sound blends West African cross-rhythms with strong rock and punk influences from the West, along with an incredible virtuosic guitar player who has a unique style of his own. Songhoy Blues is an activist rock & punk band, not just a “world music” act. Their messages are even more important than their sound. Some have referred to them as ‘The African Clash’ when asked how to describe them in a few words.  While adored in their homeland and a favorite to world audiences, this project, Optimisme, may spread their influence even further. 

The album, their third,  was produced by Matt Sweeney of indie rockers Chavez, who’s worked with a host of celebrated artists including Johnny Cash, Run the Jewels, El-P, Cat Power, Will Oldham & Jake Bugg, and recorded and mixed by Daniel Schlett (The War on Drugs, Modest Mouse, Ghostface Killah) in Brooklyn, NY. Working with Sweeney, who gave the band the freedom they sought, Optimisme confronts current native and world issues. On “Badala” and “Gabi,” Songhoy Blues seeks the empowerment of women, asking for centuries-old misogynistic practices to be done away with. On “Badala,” which is Songhai for “I don’t care” or “I don’t give a shit,” a woman freed from the domination and oppression of her man, and the men who dominate the West African country, narrates but the message is universal. The video is translated into three languages (English, French and Songhai).  The first single released in June was ‘Worry”, an inspiring song of optimism, hope, strength, and vigilance during troubled times. It also marks the first time the quartet has recorded an original song in English. 

In “Assada,” the band praises and thanks the everyday warriors who wake up each day to sweat for the betterment of their communities and in “Dournia,” the band laments the lack of compassion and empathy between humans today in the face of increasing materialism and selfishness. “Bon” warns of being fooled by shiny promises, and in “Barre,” the recently released single, the band asks for the youth to get involved at home for change while warning off those who wish to divide in “Fey.” Songhoy Blues confronts, consoles, praises, thanks, and encourages the listener toward a better world tomorrow.

Born from civil war and a shared rejection of Sharia law nearly ten years ago, Songhoy Blues embody a remarkable journey from refugees to budding rock stars. Featured in the 2015 award-winning documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First  about the plight of musicians in Mali, these are four young men who have witnessed firsthand the violence and vagaries in their country torn by tumult and divided by ideology. Their response has been to fight back using the most powerful weapon they have – their music, the same response, arguably even more fervent, that has guided the Mali artists and bands mentioned above. Using the pain and lessons learned from having to leave their hometowns in northern Mali, the band realizes that human rights is a concept that extends far beyond what they have seen with their own eyes and far beyond just the borders of Mali. Their mission is to be a musical voice for empowerment and equality.

Discovered by Damian Albarn’s Africa Expressthe band then connected with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah’s (who produced their debut album, Music In Exile). First signed by The Strokes Julian Casablancas to his imprint on Atlantic Recordsthe band ultimately found their home with (Transgressive/Fat Possum). The band has been actively building their profile ever since and earning fans across five continents, including performances at the world’s top music festivals like GlastonburyBonnarooRoskildeMontreux & more, plus two appearances on the legendary UK TV program, Later…with Jools Holland. Their last album, 2017’s widely acclaimed Resistance, solidified them as an important group to watch and they’ve followed it up with consistent touring & unforgettable live performances. They already count such luminaries as Nile Rodgers, Gary Clark Jr., Toumani Diabate, Run the Jewels, Dave Sitek, & Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes as major fans. Their guitar centric highly energetic music infused with plenty of chanting and group vocals will shake you to the core. It’s riveting, danceable, and uplifting best played loud. Count on Songhoy Blues to be with us for years to come.

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