Mojo APRIL 2015 - by David Hutcheon



From West Africa to Glasgow's West End, the hottest ticket out of Mali in ten years are putting in the miles.

A fair question might be, what are four young men from Mali doing in Glasgow on a cold, wet January night? The straightforward answer would be: playing the Celtic Connections festival - and they clearly connect with the Celts on this Burns Night - but there is more to this scenario than meets the eye. Songhoy Blues' debut album, Music In Exile, is a month away from release, yet thanks to social media and a rigorous touring schedule over the past six months they have built up a nationwide following that already knows half the songs in the set. The likes of the Super Rail Band and Ali Farka Touré took decades to get to this stage internationally.

By some accounts, they had looked a little lost on the grand stage of Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall at the previous night's show, yet confidence is soaring. Aliou Touré, the vocalist, is beaming long before he takes the stage: he had been mobbed after that gig and, to put it in terms that will impress even those suspicious of their charms in Bamako - where these refugees from extremism are viewed as migrants from a different tribe and culture - their number of Facebook 'likes' skyrocketed. These are just the opening shots of their second tour; nobody knows what might be achieved by the end of this summer's festival season.

If concert halls are yet to become natural territory, the more intimate surroundings of the crypt of a former church are perfect. Their sound is a more focused take on the desert grooves of, say, Tinariwen or Ali Farka - "Our father," says Aliou before the slow blues of Walla Aidou, though the three Tourés in the band are not related to the late king of the Niger delta blues (or each other). In this incarnation, however, it is made to swing by Oumar Touré's bass and Nathanael Dembélé's drumming: where the simple calabash percussion of those older acts implies the infinite, timeless spaces of the Sahara and music played under the stars, Songhoy Blues are designed for clubs, walls, roofs and reverb.

While predecessors such as desert-based heroes Bombino or Group Inerane brought traditional music into a rock sphere by adopting instruments that were previously rare in Saharan life, these twentysomethings (particularly guitarist Garba Touré) intuitively nod to Muddy Waters (on Nick, a tribute to their producer, Mr Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Led Zeppelin (on Ai Tchere Bele) or (just take Mojo's word on this) Colourblind James Experience's Considering A Move To Memphis (on Destin).

Remembering, too, that the band's career received an almighty boost through the appearance of Zinner and Brian Eno at an Africa Express session in Bamako, perhaps it is not surprising that Irganda nods its head in the direction of a reverse debt to New York new wave, specifically Remain In Light-era Talking Heads. Never have the mean streets of Mali and Manhattan felt so inextricably linked.

Other elements of their stagecraft suggest a lifetime watching and learning. Aliou's dancing tips its hat to the (female) dancers/backing vocalists that come as standard at an Oumou Sangaré or Salif Keita show, though he puts more emphasis on irreverence than sensuality.

Harder to explain, however, is his arm swinging swagger à la Ian Brown during Sekou Oumarou - perhaps it's just the confidence surging through his veins.

Attention has been paid, too, to the sequencing of the set: the main body closes with recent single Al Hassidi Terei, the encore concludes with Soubour, first heard on the Africa Express album Maison Des Jeunes two throbbing bags of rhythm and overloaded guitar guaranteed to leave an audience wanting more.

"If you like Songhoy Blues," Aliou says by way of bidding adieu, with a cheery faux naivety to suggest this is an idea that has just occurred to him, "go on Facebook and Twitter and tell people". And with that they depart the stage to mingle, probably wishing they had merchandise to sign for an audience waiting impatiently for the album to come out.

That may be harsh. Here is a band that has crash-landed fully formed, savvy and thrilling, yet the quartet have still to pay their dues the way it had to be done in a previous era. The three Tourés fled a ban on music in their homeland to be here - three men who share a surname and have travelled far to chase fortune and fame. They could almost be Mali's answer to The Walker Brothers... they don't have the hair, admittedly, but their ship is coming in.