If one amazing thing has come of the exile of Malian musicians following the annexation of much of the West African nation by Islamist extremists, who have since implemented Sharia law and interdicted music, it is the acceptance and acclaim many of these artists have received in the West. With groups like Tishoumaren pioneers Tinariwen being specifically targeted by Islamist militia Ansar Dine, with one of the band’s guitarists, Abdallah Ag Lamida, even being captured whilst attempting to save his guitars and held captive, Malian artists who defy authority and risk their liberty and, in some instances, their lives to play music are perhaps the truest rebels the music world has ever known. Whilst rebellion and resistance are common concepts to appear in all styles of music in the West, when it comes to pure, unadulterated dissent, standing up to militant Islamism through song is as rebellious as music comes. As such, when victims of displacement by Sharia law like Malian desert punks Songhoy Blues release a record called Résistance, it should be unmistakably clear that the message of the album is not one shrouded in poetry or obtuse metaphors, but one of genuine, forthright resistance. Hailing from Timbuktu, the desert blues outfit formed in Mali’s capital, Bamako, after being forced out of the North when Ansar Dine took control and outlawed music, among other things. Lamenting the potential loss of Northern Mali’s musical legacy and motivated to bring the music of the Songhoy people to their fellow refugees seeking asylum in the South, a group of humble musicians were moved to form a band named after both their ethnic group and the music associated with their people, with the result being Songhoy Blues. The band’s debut album, appropriately entitled Music in Exile, saw their influence from classic English and American rock and blues acts seep into their desert riffs and traditional Malian folk songcraft, making for a selection of compositions that, despite simply being an amalgamation of the music that the members of Songhoy Blues grew up hearing and playing, was uniquely theirs, with few other acts being able to work these two different takes on blues music and its close relatives together so naturally. In some regards, Résistance picks up from where its predecessor left off; at least from a lyrical and compositional perspective. Indeed, Songhoy Blues maintain their sunny disposition, in spite of the recent unrest in Mali, by celebrating their motherland’s history of coexistence, its rich and diverse cultures, and the inspiring resolve, in the face of extremism, demonstrated by so many of its inhabitants who, like the band, have been unjustly uprooted. Compositionally speaking, the group continues to hone the impressive finesse for songwriting demonstrated on Music in Exile, crafting some of their most structurally meticulous pieces thus far in their career as a result. What truly sets Résistance apart from its precursor, however, is the stylistic variation introduced into the equation by the band. Across the course of the tracklisting, Songhoy Blues take cues from genres ranging from hip hop to country to electronic music and, as much as these songs may vary in style, the one recurring theme that carries over to each of these refreshing undertakings is the ease with which the group manages to integrate any style they so choose into their definitive brand of desert punk. Given the fact that the members of the band had all grown up listening to Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker in equal measure to Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, it made perfect sense that they would be capable of intermixing these influences so seamlessly on Music in Exile, but the fact that Résistance shows them to be perfectly adept at naturally melding any genre into their stylings seems to be an indication that Songhoy Blues are a truly masterful collection of musicians.
Amidst all the stylistic adventure to take place across Résistance, the extent to which Songhoy Blues are successful in cogently anchoring all such endeavours into their true blue desert punk hue makes for an album that explores vast amounts of new territory, whilst nevertheless remaining familiar to anyone who has been acquainted with the band’s previous material. This is apparent right from the onset with the funk-infused opening of Voter, in which a guitar lick that adheres closely to the principles of West African guitar style is played with a wah pedal and entwined, amidst frequent tempo and time signature changes and rhythmic syncopation, with a punctuated horn section and a commanding bass groove, all of which share many characteristics with class funk rock from the US. The impressively melodic singing from frontman Aliou Touré consistently remains true to the scalic patterns of Malian folk music, even during the song’s fiery outburst of driving guitar fuzz and garage band levels of high-octane energy, which is matched by the call-and-response between the group’s spirited chants and Aliou’s quick-fire crooning in a lower register. Indeed, the frontman’s consistent application of melodies lifted from traditional West African stylings roots the hefty compositional and stylistic diversity of a song like Voter into an uncompromisingly Malian aesthetic. The same can be said of even the most stylistically adventurous tracks from Résistance, with the influence from Appalachian music on Hometown being a prime example. The cues taken from American folk, blues and country music on this song extend beyond simply interspersing a fluttering bluegrass fiddle between vocal phrases, rather the very chordal structure of the composition, as well as the Big Bill Broonzy-esque country blues acoustic guitar, navigate the classic sounds of the American south, touching on fundamentals engrained within a wide array of the styles of the music the area has spawned. Even amongst all of this, however, Hometown boasts perhaps one of the most traditionally West African vocal melodies across the entire record, with the way in which the rest of the group joins in to complete Aliou’s lines evoking the sense of collective involvement and resolution that is so often held to be of great importance in Malian folk music. The buoyant vocal melodies of Mali Nord are potent for similar reasons, albeit atop one of the more elementary, electrified desert blues instrumentals; or, at least, that is until the horn-driven beat switches that see UK grime rapper and The Square member, Elf Kid, work a guest verse of rapid-fire flows impressively smoothly into the song. Undoubtedly, whilst both fantastic albums, the key strength Résistance has over Music in Exile is a heightened degree of stylistic variation that is met with just as much, and potentially even slightly more, natural cohesion from Songhoy Blues, both in their performances and their ability to work these broadened influences into their pre-established stylings.
With such pronounced diversification to Songhoy Blues’ sound appearing on tracks like Hometown and Mali Nord, it can be easy to overlook the fact that Résistance also marks an expanded and improved compositional aptitude from the group. Indeed, practically every song in the tracklisting is rife with finely-worked and well-executed twists and turns, coming in the form of routine changes in tempo and time signature, as well as elements such as polyphony and divergent rhythmic structures that, at times, rival math rock in terms of technicality. What’s more, all this is done without it ever sounding like the band is breaking a sweat, nor does the complexity of any of these pieces run the risk of being inaccessible for any listeners, due to just how naturally they are worked by the band. The counterpoint provided during the introduction to Badji, for instance, which sees the drawn-out notes of a crunchy guitar tone woven between the dainty touches of broken chords from a clean guitar, comes to fruition in an impassioned and soulful fashion, whilst the ensuing, left-field rhythms of the main body of the song carry a distinct Afrobeat bounce, and at no point does the band ever even come close to losing this atypical, but no less energetic, groove. Generally speaking, the frequent duelling guitar noodling and irregular stop-start rhythms to take place across tracks like Voter, Dabari, Ici Bas and Ir Ma Sobay are constantly performed high levels of individual dexterity, as well as impenetrable cohesion as a group of musicians, with there being nary a moment wherein Songhoy Blues miss the ambitious mark of musicianship and compositional prowess that they have set for themselves on Résistance.
Given the extensive alterations made to their stylings on Résistance, ranging from surface-level changes, like the addition of brass and synthesizers, to the sweeping stylistic tone shifts on many of these songs, Songhoy Blues seem to be just as at home in this new sound as they were in a more familiar desert blues sound on Music in Exile. Perhaps this is only appropriate; that a group of refugees living in exile are just as prone to adjusting to various musical styles as they are to acclimatising to new places. Either way, Résistance has an overt message, and it is almost limitlessly successful in translating this to the listener, with the nigh untouchable songwriting skills, technical talent, stylistic savvy and collective cohesion of the band conveying their knowledge of, and reverence for, the rich and diverse music of a plethora of cultures. Although the term “punk” is seldom associated with the grinning faces of four cheery Malian men leaping around on stage, the label of “desert punk” is especially felicitous when applied to Songhoy Blues, as there is perhaps nothing more punk than making music and having fun in the face of tyranny and extremism.
The Vinyl Verdict: 9/10