The Mali Blues
Three influential musicians from Mali have impressed Indian audiences this festival season including Fatoumata Diawara, Songhoy Blues and Vieux Farka Touré, who is set to perform in the country this month
Resistance has always been elemental to survival in parts of the Africa, and more recently radical Islamist forces endangering people’s freedoms and rights in the most perverse of ways, reassert its imperativeness. In Mali, the sound of subversiveness is not predictably articulated by a rallying cry of dissent, it takes the form of a sprightly, rhythmic swirl that challenges the status quo, reminiscent of Bob Marley’s protest music. A pacifist approach that seeks to sensitize about issues that are crippling Africa. Two such artists from Mali, Fatoumata Diawara and the Songhoy Blues — who had a a little help from Damon Albarn of Blur — are bringing this message through song to the world stage.
Their music emphasizes the indigenity of the blues to Africa, the composition is stylistically very different from its western counterpart that was mined in the deep south of America. The Songhoy Blues is comprised of musicians in exile, which also inspired the title of their debut album [Music in Exile], due out in February. The band performed at two editions of Bacardi NH7 Weekender, in Pune and in Delhi. Most of the band members are originally from Timbuktu, but were forced to leave and move to Bamako, because of the domination of Islamist terrorists, who had even put a prohibition on their playing music.
“The record is related to our own story, this first album defines us, how we got into music and created this group. In 2012, in North Mali, Timbuktu Gao there was a rebellion, terrorists took over town centres and we decided to leave as we were under pressure from the different groups. At first we started playing in small bars,” Aliou Touré, lead vocalist of Songhoy Blues wrote to rolling stone India via email. “Music in Exile is like our departure from our hometown as we were confronted with the occupation of our traditions, our inspirations, our art and culture. We came to Bamako and from there we made contact with Africa Express and came to Europe and we exiled with our music. Music in exile is our personal story.”
Albarn helmed the Africa Express project, working on a record with artists from Mali in collaboration with western musicians like producer Brian Eno and Nick Zinner, guitarist and keyboardist of American indie rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in October 2013. The project also featured Diawara. The singer, who is originally from Mali and now resides in France, derives her sound from Wassoulou blues, which is rooted in Mali. Diawara’s songs tie in with themes of oppression that have been plaguing Mali, her lyrics highlight the rampant practice of female genital mutilation and push for women’s emancipation in Africa. The African singers move to France was motivated by wanting to escape the misogynistic culture in her home country, to live life on her own terms, rejecting the prospect an early marriage to a cousin and looking to make it as a musician and actress. By being mindful of her own evolution, she seeks to set an example for women from her community.
“It’s not only in Mali, but in most of Africa, we don’t have the stability politically, so music has to take its place today, you have to be political but not political like politicians, so I am going to do what’s important for my generation,” she says in a phone interview. “We have to do things differently, not by fighting. For women to have emancipation for development, only women can do that, men can help, but it is only when a woman will be conscious of the fact that she wants to be free, she wants to be emancipated, that this can be achieved. And that way, it’s for us to do, it’s my job.” Diawara was in India in November to perform at the Blackberrys Sharp Nights – Masters of World Music, a new concert series, which also brings superstar vocalist-guitarist Vieux Farka Toure to India this month.
More than anything else, the artists wants to encourage the ethic of inquiry in her community. One of Diawara’s songs, “Bissa,” takes the issue of female genital mutilation head-on. She not only questions the inhuman practice but also its origins, and its legitimacy. While talking about the sad state of affairs, and the death of many girls in Mali on this account, she says she has no idea where this tradition came from, and wants to find out. “I want my daughter to have pleasure in her life, it’s God’s gift to her,” she adds, emphasizing the need for Africans to recognize and honor a woman’s sexuality.
Diawara’s songs capture the vibrancy of African culture, while their call to dance is infectious, they are also a study in ethnic musicology, and satisfy the artist’s pursuit to revive and preserve.
While Diawara’s lyrics might more evidently relay the message for change, the Songhoy Blues ride a more implicit wave. Inspiring not to react like the rebels but to strengthen one’s resolve and undermine the fundamentalists. The message of perseverance, to ride the storm and emerge stronger, lies at the heart of “Sobour.” The first song to be released off of their debut album, it also features on Africa Express and Zinner collaborated with the band on it.
“The song talks about patience in life, because anything you need to achieve in life requires a lot of patience. This song does not necessarily target a particular person but it can be for anyone who has to overcome a problem,” Aliou wrote.
Sadly, the situation in Mali might only be worsening as Ebola very recently found its way to the country. Coupled with the financial constraints Aliou lets us know that the people “are becoming psychotic because they are scared.”
“As artists, we feel concerned when we have a problem that reaches home. It could be a disease war, any form of crisis,” he writes. “It hurts us that our brothers and sisters are over there and that people are suffering and living in fear. My thoughts are that how can we get together to fix the problem. Our plan is to continue to travel around the world so that we can become successful in order to help our country financially.”
Watch the video for “Peace” by Vieux Farka Toure:
Win tickets to watch Vieux Farka Touré in Mumbai
Vieux Farka Touré will perform tomorrow at Tote in Mumbai tomorrow, supported by Rajiv Raja Combine, for Blackberrys Sharp Nights – Masters Of World Music. Rolling Stone India offers readers a chance to win two couple passes to the event.
December 10th, 2014
7 pm onwards
*Each ticket only entitles the winner entry to the concert and not food or beverages.