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Songhoy Blues - Student Union, Sheffield, 26/2/2016

  by Nicky Crewe

published: 8 / 3 / 2016

Songhoy Blues  - Student Union, Sheffield, 26/2/2016


Nicky Crewe learns more about the history and culture of Mali, where the power and message of protest music is taken to a new level, when watching Songhoy Blues play a gig in Sheffield

Sometimes a gig is far more than entertainment. I was aware of a film about the plight of music and musicians from Mali through social media. ‘They Will have To Kill Us First’ is a documentary made by director Johanna Schwartz, released in 2015. The idea of showing the film alongside a live performance and interview with one of the bands featured, Songhoy Blues, is genius. Thank you to Talking Gigs (‘Discovery through music’) for making it happen. Taking a powerful and often harrowing documentary about the civil war within Mali and the role of jihadists in brutally banning music there, and showing it alongside the joyous music from one of Mali’s brightest and best new bands is an amazing combination. Informative, inspirational and full of insights. It’s not often you see the warning "features strong real violence" at the beginning of a music documentary. Taking military operational film, news reels and thoughtfully filmed and edited original footage, this is a film that helps explain the politics and events of the last few years in Mali, following the stories of individual music makers affected by the ban. It’s about refugees and returning home, keeping the faith and sharing the message. It begins with the ban on all music imposed in 2012 when the jihadists joined forces with the MNLA in the north of the country. Radio stations and venues were closed down. Malian music has had a huge impact on the World Music scene, with many of its musicians becoming favourites on the festival and concert scene throughout Europe. Imagine a life without music. Even worse, imagine fleeing for your life because you are a musician. Singer Khaira Arby says "music is like oxygen for human beings" and this is particularly true in Malian culture. Music has been the channel of communication and cohesion from the traditional past to the evolving present, keeping the different tribes represented in this fascinating country together. Disco, another woman artist, fled to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso where she used her music to boost morale for the women there. Alongside their stories runs the story of Songhoy Blues, a group of young musicians who refused to be intimidated by the fear and destruction of sharia law. Connected through family links to other Malian musicians, representing different ethnic groups within Mali, they named themselves after one of the tribes. Their music was taken up by Brian Eno and Damon Albarn. Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has produced their first album, aptly named ‘Music in Exile’. The film is about journeys. Fighting the fear, the women singers from Mali head back to Timbuktu. Khaira uses her persuasive powers and influence as a famous singer to plan a concert , the first since the ban on music has been lifted. Disco returns from refugee camp in Burkina Faso to join her. Spreading the message, Songhoy Blues leave Mali for London, recording their first album, and appearing to great acclaim at Glastonbury and the Albert Hall. The film has a positive ending, with the sheer joy of that free concert in Timbuktu. The political difficulties are not yet fully resolved, but music is back where it should be. It’s Disco’s quote that provides the title for the film. The interview and performance section of the evening saw the members of Songhoy Blues seated on stage, introduced and interviewed by the former manager of Tinariwen, who considers Songhoy Blues as the cream of contemporary Malian music. Conducted in French, translated into English, it’s an approach that worked surprisingly smoothly. Film clips and photos illustrated some of the topics. The cross cultural nature of World Music was to the fore. This Talking Gig idea is wonderful for giving a deeper and wider understanding of the musicians and their cultural roots. When I was a child Timbuktou was a place full of mystery, remote and obscure. I now know that it has a rich and significant culture and history, combining animism and Islam, sorcerers and soothsayers in its mix of tradition and modernity. As one of the band said more than once, "If you don’t know where you have been, you don’t know where you are going. Their culture is about defusing differences and creating unity among the different ethnic groups represented in Mali. Musicians are the walls of the house, bringing everyone together. At the end of the interview section, which had been interspersed with performance of their music, the band was asked to play on their feet. So they did, and the auditorium erupted into a joyful celebration of music and the part it plays in all our lives, whether we are in Sheffield or Timbuktu.

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Songhoy Blues  - Student Union, Sheffield, 26/2/2016

Songhoy Blues  - Student Union, Sheffield, 26/2/2016

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