‘Songhoy Blues has always been about resistance. We started the group during a civil war, in the face of a music ban, to create something positive out of adversity'
- Songhoy Blues
Mixing traditional Malian desert blues with rock, hip hop and R&B, Malian band Songhoy Blues came together in 2012 in Bamako. The band’s members Aliou Touré, Garba Touré and Oumar Touré, had fled there, driven from their homes by the civil conflict in Northern Mali and the subsequent imposition of Sharia law by armed Islamist groups.
Music is central to the Malian way of life and is a fundamental part of Malian culture, defining life from birth to death.The strict interpretation of Sharia law imposed by Islamist militants banned playing, performing and listening to music, with often violent implications for those caught doing so. Far away from their hometowns of Gao and Timbuktu, the members of Songhoy Blues spoke out against the Islamists’ actions through their music, ensuring that their threatened culture still had a voice. The band’s energy driven music and performances has resulted in worldwide success and their story was told in Rebel Sounds at IWM London, an exhibition exploring how people have stood up for the music they love.
As long as we have music left in us and something to say, we’ll keep fighting each day with music as our weapon, our songs as our resistance’ - Songhoy Blues
A former French colony, the Republic of Mali declared independence from France in September 1960. Mali operated as a one-party state until 1991, when pro-democracy protests prompted a military coup resulting in the overthrow of the dictatorial regime of President Moussa Traoré, and the creation of a new constitution and the introduction of multi-party politics. In January 2012 a political and military campaign led by Touareg organisation the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) fought for northern Mali to become the independent state of Azawad. Supported by armed Salafist Islamist groups Ansar Ud-Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamist Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) the MNLA declared the independence of Azawad in April 2012, following a military coup in March 2012.
Although the MNLA and the Islamist groups had fought alongside each other in mutual support of the independence of Azawad, the Islamists’ imposition of strict Sharia law on northern Mali led to fighting between the two factions, resulting in the MNLA losing control of most of the region to the Islamists by mid July 2012, who imposed an extreme interpretation of Sharia law. People were whipped when caught smoking or drinking alcohol, stoned if found guilty of adultery, and had their hands cut off for theft. Social activities such as football games and dancing were banned, and even being caught watching television could provoke an angry response from the Islamists if caught.
‘We do not want Satan’s music. In its place, there will be Quranic verses. Sharia demands this. What God commands must be done’ - Osama Ould Abdel Kader, Mujao spokesman
Music was a particular target for the Islamist groups, who viewed it as unholy. Musicians and radio stations had their equipment confiscated and destroyed, concerts and festivals were cancelled due to fear of violent attacks by the Islamists, and even being caught listening to music in the street or at home was deemed a punishable offence.
For music to be restricted in such a way was a huge shock to those in northern Mali. The loss of freedom in so many aspects of life as a result of the imposition of Sharia law in the region led to many fleeing to the south of the country and even further away, in fear for their lives. Among those who left were the members of Songhoy Blues.
‘When the tribal war started, when the political situation got rough and got worse and worse, and the jihadist guys took over the north of the country…no one could play any music. They banned music, they banned sport, they banned clubs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, nothing, nothing absolutely. So it kind of take this soul of this town away. So everyone from that moment from the North has to move to the south, you know just to be safe’ - Aliou Touré, singer, Songhoy Blues
Aliou, Oumar and Garba fled separately to the city of Bamako following the Islamist takeover of northern Mali. Having witnessed first hand in their home cities of Gao and Timbuktu the strict measures the Islamists took to ensure that Sharia law was adhered to, they knew what the militant groups were capable of. The band was formed when Aliou’s cousin needed a band to play at her wedding, and the group continued to play together, developing their own unique sound.
Aliou, Oumar and Garba are all Songhai people, and by forming a band together in Bamako and heavily referencing their culture in both style and lyrics, they were able to demonstrate their resistance to the violence inflicted on northern Mali. Since 2012 the band have become internationally successful, continuing to make and record music that reflects their experiences, sending a clear message that they have not been silenced as musicians, despite the Islamist militant groups’ efforts to do so.