Songhoy Blues at Whelans on Wednesday, 21st October 2015.
Songhoy Blues performance in Whelan’s is only their second in Ireland, having played earlier this year at Body and Soul Festival. Most of the audience appear to have been at that first gig because when the band mention the Westmeath festival, they erupt into cheers, claps and giddy screams of “woop woop!” The Mailain four-piece grin wildly – clearly pleased that their Irish debut impressed fans enough to make them want to be present tonight.
Over the last two years their fanbase has grown from their hometowns of Gao and Timbuktu, to the clubs of Bamako in southern Mali and venues in Austin, New York and Europe. Their following includes Damon Albarn (they performed as part of Africa Express) and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who produced their first album: Music in Exile.
Their distinctive bluesy, desert rock sound has been compared to the Black Keys, Talking Heads and Led Zeppelin, with elements of funk, hip-hop and hints of John Lee Hooker and the iconic Malian guitar hero, Ali Farka Toure.
It’s a cold October night, the first time this year that there’s a noticeable chill in the air but Songhoy Blues know how to bring the heat. By the time the band launch into their second song Ai Tchere Bele, the audience begin to remove scarves, hats, jackets and jumpers.
As the steady rhythm increases and lead singer Aliou Touré breaks out into a frenzied dance, those in the front row blow sticky, sweaty strands of hair from their foreheads as they match his rhythm – lost in the sandstorm of deep bass grooves.
The energy in the room intensifies when the band play Irganda, with its chicken-scratch guitar and punk-funk sound. Toure shrieks and bounces on stage, drenched in sweat – he relieves himself at the end of the song by pouring a bottle of River Rock over his head.
They perform for over 90 minutes and stay completely engaged with the crowd throughout. Even at slow tempos, the music whirls with motion. The bass and guitars drive each song forward, while percussionist, Nathanial ‘Nat’ Dembele, frames the beats.
“Now we’re going to dance together,” vocalist Touré tells the audience before the band kick in to the upbeat Al Hassidi Terei.
“You ready for that? Do you have space? No? Come join us on stage!”
About ten members of the audience happily oblige, eager to play a part in the band’s fiery performance. They lose themselves in the Sahara rhythms; grooving, swaying, tapping feet, clicking fingers and beaming brightly.
The band are part of the Songhoy ethnic group, who were once one of the most prominent of Mali’s ethnic groups. Despite being exiled from their country, they retain a fierce pride in their history, beliefs and traditional music. They make several references to their homeland throughout their set and you can feel a sense of homesick yearning in the songs of rebellion.
They close with the much-loved single Soubour and dedicate it to the audience.
“Thank you for your passion; [for listening] to Malian music, [for dancing] to Malian music,” Aliou Touré says, before breaking into his frenzied dance once again.
The crowd cheer back, shouting for more… the adoration clearly earned.
Note: Photo used from Body & Soul 2015 performance.