SXSW 2015 March Music


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2 8 S X S W o r l d | M U S I C M A R C H 2 0 1 5 | S X S W. C O M n 2012, Islamist radicals linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a home- grown separatist movement and conquered parts of northern Mali in West Africa. They instituted Sharia law and made all music illegal, seeing it as a decadent western influence and a distraction from worship. Finding life without music intolerable, guitarist Garba Touré, bassist Oumar Touré, and vocalist Aliou Touré (they are unrelated; Touré is a common name in Mali) fled to the southern part of the country and formed a rock band called Songhoy Blues with drummer Nathanael Dembélé. The band's refusal to stop making music is the centerpiece of the documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First, which had its world premiere this week at SXSW Film. Songhoy Blues will also make its debut American performance at SXSW. Oumar, Garba and Aliou were brought up on traditional African music, modern acts like Tinariwen and Malian guitar legend Ali Farka Touré (Garba's father played in his band), and American acts from Jay Z to John Lee Hooker. They were working musicians in a land where music has been an integral part of culture since prehistory and to them, life without it was unthinkable. The three fled separately to Bamako, Mali's capital in the rela- tively peaceful south. They were part of a large northern Malian refugee community and followed news of the war while worrying about relatives back home. They had not known each other well in their home city of Gao, but in Bamako they drew closer and decided that since it was a love of music that had made them leave home, they needed to make music there, too. "We arrived in Bamako and instead of being in the street pro- testing, we decided to set up a band," said bassist Oumar Touré. "That was the best way for us to express ourselves." With a military coup underway in the Malian government, a civil war raging against northern separatists, and Islamists banning all culture in their hometown, Songhoy Blues' music, in a way, was a protest. It was a protest against the violence in northern Mali and the Islamist attack on culture there. To a mixed audience of northerners and southerners of all ethnic groups, the band sang about unity, shared culture, women in Africa, environmental justice and most of all, about everyday life. "They are able to say a lot of things that perhaps a lot of other musicians are too scared to say," said Johanna Schwartz, director of They Will Have to Kill Us First. She followed the band's early career in Bamako for her documentary about the plight of Malian musicians. "You see them go from more than half-empty clubs in the south of Mali to the Royal Albert Hall and sold-out crowds in the U.K.," Schwartz said. "It's an incredible trajectory." This international recognition came about when Garba Touré cold- called French music promoter and producer Marc-Antoine Moreau, who is now the band's manager. Moreau was in Mali to scout talent for Africa Express, a musical project led by Damon Albarn (Blur), Brian Eno, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and others that exposes African artists to western audiences. Moreau auditioned the band and invited them to record a single, "Soubour" ("Patience"), with Zinner. A show in London and a recording session followed, with Moreau and Zinner producing. The resulting album, Music in Exile, combines the syncopated rhythms and call-and-response vocals of traditional African music with the bass/guitar/drums attack of rock and roll. The title is apt because even though the Malian and French gov- ernments declared victory over the Islamists in June 2013, and Mali signed a peace accord with a secular separatist group, musi- cians and others are not yet returning to the north en masse. Some Islamists remain under- ground, and there are still terrorist attacks. For now, it isn't safe for the members of Songhoy Blues to perform in their hometown, even though they yearn for, as Oumar said, "a big comeback [show] in the north." Instead, they live on the road, telling audiences worldwide about what happened in Mali. "Sometimes we play in places where people don't know much about Mali, and sometimes they don't know where Mali is," said singer Aliou Touré. For his fellow Malians, he wants to spread a message of unity between north and south, especially now that the northern separatists have been defeated and the Islamists have been driven underground. "More than anything, we want to present and intro- duce people to their own culture, to their own music," he said. And for everyone else, there are other stories to be told. There is the story of what happened to Mali, which seems, with the rise of ISIS, to be a precursor to events today. There is the story of the band and their fellow Malian musicians, and about the power and perse- verance of art. There is also the story told by the music, in its lyrics and its world-spanning grooves. "Music is very important in the north of Mali as well as every where in Mali, and it's important to us to introduce and present our culture through music," Aliou said. S o n g h oy B l u es p e r fo rm s to m o rrow ni g h t ( Fri d ay , M a rch 20) a t t h e Pa ri s h ( 2 14 C E 6t h St). They Will Have To Kill Us Fir s t s cre e n s to m o rrow a t 7p m a t t h e V i m e o Th e a te r in s i d e t h e A u s t i n C o nve n t io n C e n te r. When Music is Outlawed, Only Outlaws Play Music . by Rob PReliasco I S o n g h oy B l u es A N D Y M O R G A N

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