Imagine getting publicly whipped or locked up for listening to a song on your mobile phone! That was the plight of youngsters like Garba Toure in their hometown, Dire, in northern Maliin 2012. For a country which revelled in its rich tradition of homegrown music, the ultimatum issued by the Islamist group Ansar al Dine banning listening or playing music came as a jolt. “We discovered that there was nothing the powers that be could do to help us,” says Garba. “So we had to head south.”
For someone like Garba, who had “music running in his blood”, thanks to his father Oumar Toure, the congas man of Mali’s famous Grammy-winning guitarist Ali Farka Toure, it was almost impossible to stay away from music. The journey that started with a single backpack and a guitar from Dire to Bamako, Mali’s capital, finally led Garba and his music to a favourable destination. It was a chance reunion at a friend’s wedding that brought Aliou Toure, Oumar Toure (all unrelated to each other) and Nathanael Dembele together. “We played together as a band for the first time,” says Garba. “That is when we realised that ourmusic will help other refugees like us relive the songs from their past.”
As they all belonged to the Songhoy ethnicity and because of their deep admiration for Jimi Hendrix and Ali Farka Toure, they decided to call themselves Songhoy Blues. They became an instant hit in the Bamako music scene and went on to do a few shows in the UK. Their debut album, Music In Exile, is due for release next February and the music video of a single from it—Al Hassidi Terei—has gone viral on YouTube. Songhoy Blues are in Pune to perform at the NH7 Weekender.
Vieux Farka Toure, Ali Farka Toure’s son and a world-famous guitarist himself, was also in the country this month for a three-city tour organised by Blackberry. The musician, who has earned the moniker “Hendrix of the Sahara” through his blues music, was livid while discussing the music ban in his homeland. Vieux calls it a “catastrophe”. “It was crazy,” he says. “They were burning down instruments, venues and whipping musicians.” For the people of Mali, music is “like air and water”. As a country, their tradition is to inspire people through their music, the reason why Vieux wants to keep the folk element in his music alive.
The musicians, who have toured around the world, harbour a soft corner for India. While for Songhoy Blues, it is the fascination of visiting a land which they have experienced only through television sets back home, for Vieux, who has visited the country once before, it is the love and appreciation the people of the country bestow upon musicians like him. “People here are so warm. I love chatting with them during my walks around the marketplaces here,” says Vieux, who was part of the ensemble that included Shakira and Alicia Keys that played at the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony. “Thanks to its rich musical tradition, Indian audiences are very open to newer styles and sounds.”
Although visiting India for the first time, Garba says he is familiar with the ways of the country thanks to Bollywood and Indian soap operas. “To get a chance to visit and play in India is amazing,” he says. “It is a very good opportunity for a band like us. It will be a different audience, but I am sure they are gonna dance with us.” The people of Mali are ardent followers of Indian music. Vieux lists Bappi Lahiri and Zakir Hussain as his favourites from India and can even hum a few lines of the title track of Kabhi Kabhi. The country and its musicare an inspiration for him, says Vieux, who on his last visit here had collaborated with Rajasthani musicians. “Wherever I go in the world, I make it a point to listen to local musicand add its flavour to my own music,” he says. “And, Indian and Mali music are very similar, so it becomes easier to collaborate and enhance my own compositions.”
Despite being devout Muslims, they do not agree with the ideas of the extremists who occupied their land. To them, the ban seems like “nonsense” and they believe that music can be a powerful tool to educate the people. “We come from a country where almost 80 per cent of the population is Muslim,” says Garba. “So the question of faith versus music keeps arising. Following a religion is one thing and learning to live with the changing times is another.” Songhoy Blues want to endorse the fact that music is harmless and their aim is to entertain people.
After their performance in Pune and Delhi, the band will head back to Europe on a 20-day tour. “We are going to play at a big festival with the support of Julian Casablancas from The Strokes,” says Garba. Vieux will continue touring the world soon after completing his next project–an album with American indie musician Julia Easterlin. These youngsters have come a long way from surviving an intolerant regime, preserving their culture through their musicand, now, living their dream of taking their songs to the world. “We are extremely excited and we just hope that we keep getting more opportunities to travel the world and take our musicas far as possible,” says Garba.