Interview: Songhoy Blues’ ‘Optimisme’ Provides the Hope & Groove We Need Right Now

Songhoy Blues © Kiss Diouara
Songhoy Blues © Kiss Diouara
Malian band Songhoy Blues expand their message, offering answers, energy and hope on their addictive third album, ‘Optimisme’.
Stream: ‘Optimisme’ – Songhoy Blues

Songhoy Blues are a band against every single damage going on in this world right now.

When lead singer Aliou Toure tells me Songhoy Blues was “born on the stage,” it’s only half the story. He left out the Taliban, a civil war, and a mass exodus. He also neglected to mention Sharia Law and its music ban. What Toure spoke at length about however, was the indisputable power of music: For a while, it was all his band had.

Optimisme - Songhoy Blues
Optimisme – Songhoy Blues

It’s an understatement to say Songhoy Blues know about struggle.

And yet, their brand of desert rock is undeniably hopeful: Hell, the record’s called Optimisme. “We’ve been traveling a lot now and we realize that the whole world is affected by the same corrupt situations, and have bad situations with the environment and human rights,” says Toure via WhatsApp. “It’s not just Mali, it’s human beings. That’s why we’re calling the album Optimisme, because it’s a word that talks to the whole of humanity.”

This perspective has always permeated their work – from their urgent debut Music in Exile through their 2017 sophomore offering Resistance. While Optimisme (released October 23 via Fat Possum Records) retains all the hypnotic riffs and mesmerizing melodies that make Songhoy Blues an instant party, in all other respects they’ve expanded. “After seven years working together, touring, meeting great artists around the world, great producers, seeing great big bands on stage, that’s a very important influence to work with when you’re working on a new album.”

Hardcore fans need not panic though – they’ve still got their roots: “[Mali] is the base of our music. All comes from our language and our culture, and that thing is in our blood and our soul and that thing will take over everything because between who you are and what you do, for us, who you are will always take over,” says Toure. 

But they’re much more than that: “We can’t tell people we’re doing Malian world music or reggae music – we’re doing whatever can make us feel comfortable with the melody and the sound,” says Toure. “We don’t take a sound and turn it to rock – the sound will turn itself in whatever type of music it wants for hisself. The music will do that hisself. We’re not making it – it happens naturally and we will put whatever lyrics can fit in whatever melody to make sense. We just surf on the waves.”

Songhoy Blues ©Kiss Diouara
Songhoy Blues © Kiss Diouara

Their message has expanded too. While their previous albums sounded the alarm on the plight of Mali, intersectionality is the order of the day. “Every single song talks to a specific situation which is somehow affecting some people on this planet, which is very important. Every single track will talk to some people and will be important for them,” says Toure. Tackling everything from the environment to woman’s rights, they fight for change the only way they believe in: “If there is one way to make a change in this world, it only can be through music.”

But before you worry about being preached to, Toure insists his band’s first aim is to make you move your feet – you can take the message to heart later. “That energy is our identity. Everything we do and everywhere we go, people will identify Songhoy Blues by this energy,” says Toure. “Everything we do and everywhere we go, people will identify Songhoy Blues by this energy. If the lyrics are sad or cold, we always pull out that paradox that is energy, to bring people together, to get people’s attention first and then tell them the message.” The Franz Ferdinand-esque “Pour Toi” demonstrates this speaker-vibrating energy. 

But nowhere is it clearer than Toure’s favourite track “Worry.” Their first track recorded in English, its “message is supposed to be sent to a little kid, the new generation.” A father himself, Toure uses the track to give advice to the leaders of tomorrow: “To be an optimist, to keep his self-control, to keep his feet on the land, to go through his darkness to find his light, to be respectful for humanity, nature, everything, to not be rash and to not go into the bullshit wars that all of humanity are going through right now.” 

Heady stuff, but captured beautifully and philosophically, and supported with an enchanting riff and a Marley like refrain. 

Don’t worry
You’re gonna be happy
Keep working today
That smile will come one day
Don’t worry
You’re gonna be happy
Keep fighting today
That smile will come one day
Nothing’s come for free
When you get it free – you will lose it freely
So you better know
Work hard is the best way

What makes Optimisme – and by extension, Songhoy Blues – so important is their role as a true global sound.

This isn’t world music like when Paul Simon whips out his bongos; Songhoy Blues pull from everywhere. The opening riff on “Badala” is American rock music, while “Gabi” is distinctly desert-rock, and “Kouma” is National-style brooding. Songs are sang in Songhoy, English, French – whichever best serves the melody: “As our music doesn’t have a border, our ideology and lyrics don’t either.”

Optimisme is an album of answers. Songhoy Blues burst onto the scene with a booming rallying cry – five years on, it’s more relevant that ever: “The message has been heard but it’s never enough when you’re engaged to fight against something that is war, and to fight for something that is peace and love. It’s never enough. We’re doing our best and we’re going to keep doing it.”

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