The band, Songhoy Blues, stared down that dilemma in 2012. Their town of Gao, in northern Mali, west Africa, was over-run by a jihadist militia who outlawed music. Armed marauders made house-to-house searches kidnaping musicians and cutting off their fingers or tongues, smashing instruments, toppling cell towers and threatening radio stations that played “the devil’s music.” You could get 40 lashes for merely singing.
Oumar Touré and Aliou Touré had grown up in Gao, on the Niger River, entranced by western music including hip hop, R&B, and classic rock, such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. They found a musical brother in guitarist Garba Touré. When the jihadis stormed their town, the young men and their families (no relation, Toure is a common African surname) grabbed what they could, including their guitars, and fled south to Bamako, the dusty, teeming, capital city.
“We met up (in Bamako),” Garba told an interviewer, “and told ourselves we couldn’t just stay shipwrecked by a crisis like this. We had to form a band. Music was our weapon.”
The jihadists have since been defeated but the band lives on. This summer, mixing the traditional grooves of the Songhoy people with the modern vibes of their hearts, Songhoy Blues released their second album, Résistance, on Oxford’s Fat Possum Records.
It is dance music, joyous grooves born of hard times and strife. The video of “Bamako” looks like Africa’s version of Footloose. Toure told NPR that was by design.
“With ‘Bamako’ we just wanted to write something fun and positive about where we come from. So much of what people hear about Africa is war and famine. This track is about going out on a Saturday night.”
This week we’ll meet two more guests who know something about courage and “the devil’s music.”
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky (Tor Books) a so-called “science fiction” novel that could well be considered, magic fiction. (The birds in question talk by page 3). Anders displays her literary bravery – and chops – in “an entertaining and audacious melding of science, magic and just plain real life that feels perfectly right for our time.” (Buzz Feed) There’s even a love story.
Author and musician Adam Gussow explores the “Devil’s music” – literally – in his new book, Beyond the Crossroads – The Devil and the Blues Tradition (Univ. of North Carolina Press). Gussow goes through transcripts of 125 blues recordings over the last century to study the various appearances and uses of the devil in blues music. The book dives deeply into Robert Johnson’s apocryphal deal with the titular character and arrives at sharp, new insights into the city of Clarksdale claiming the crossroads.
Magic, romance, talking birds, African rhythms, Old Scratch himself! Can’t wait!
See yall Thursday-
Thursday, Oct. 12th at 6 pm at Off Square Books (129 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655) a special edition of the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour in conjunction with the Sarah Isom Center. FREE Admission.
Guests: Science fiction novelist Charlie Jane Anders, blues historian Adam Gussow, and African desert blues band, Songhoy Blues.
Hosts: Jim Dees and our house band, the Yalobushwhackers
Radio: WUMS 92.1 FM (Oxford)
NOTE: Songhoy Blues will play a full show at Proud Larry’s Thursday, Oct. 12 at 10 pm.