“The world without music? It would be a prison, right?” Songhoy Blues’ guitarist Garba Touré has good reason to contemplate such a state of affairs, and it’s fair to say that here is a band with more invested in their sound than your average anglo electro balladeers. The group formed while refugees in southern Mali, having fled the 2012 post-coup conflict in the north, that opened the door for such fundamentalist groups as Ansar Dine to seize ground and impose their inhuman tenets. Which included the banning of secular music; all the more absurd in a country that has spawned such genre-shredding titans as Tinariwen, the Farka Tourés and the Diabatés.
The spark in this dark was the fortuitous bonding of three young exiles and a southern-born drummer, Nat Dembelé, and their coalescing into a rocking rhythmic fusion of West African cadences and, as the name, ah, hints, the blues: a music exported from Africa, honed in America and now reappraised at source. Born of the transfixing repetitive licks espoused by Hopkins, Hooker and Ali Farka Touré, Songhoy’s sound is energised with the upbeat chops of JB Lenoir, say, or Bo Diddley, and thus the new-wave funk-angularity of Talking Heads or Wire. It is a vibe that caught the ears of Africa Express – Damon Albarn’s vocals are somewhere in the mix on ‘Soubour’, a clattering groove of fuzzed-up contrapuntal fretwork. While the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner produced ‘Music In Exile’ and inserted his instrumental skills en route, including on ‘Irganda’, where the bassline raises the dancehall Afrofunk to boiling point, and ‘Nick’, an intense 4/4 stomper. There’s more at the quartet’s disposal than insistent floor-filling, though, as the groovy shuffle, flowing arpeggios and robust harmonies on ‘Petit Metier’ prove, as does ‘Desert Melodie’, a powerful call for unity set to a gentle hypnotic refrain.
Songhoy Blues’ existence might be call for celebration in itself: inter-ethnic, inter-faith peacenik punks building rock’n’roll momentum in defiance of murderous regression, but, as we all know, it don’t mean a thing if it don’t got that swing. Strip ‘Music In Exile’ of all context and what’s left is a funky, fiery, addictive record centred around the universal glee that the expression and passion wrought from an amplified six-string can bring. Guitar heroes, for real.
Live: Barfly – February 23rd (Sold Out), Rough Trade East – February 23rd (Free)