Where politics fail, music often succeeds. If nothing else, artists can keep the faces and voices of their country’s citizens in front of world audiences as warring dealmakers and generals try to hijack their national identity. It’s a situation with which the four young men collectively known as Songhoy Blues are intimately familiar.
Vocalist Aliou Touré and guitarist Oumar Touré grew up in Gao in northern Mali listening to West African folk heroes like Ali Farka Touré (no relation) as well as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker and hip-hop. In college, they befriended guitarist Garba Touré, a familiar presence around Timbuktu whose father Oumar had played percussion in Farka Touré’s ensemble. In 2012, they fled to Bamako in southern Mali to escape spiraling violence: After Ansar Dine jihadists invaded the once peaceful region and outlawed alcohol, cigarettes and music, artists and radio station owners were targeted for brutal reprisal.
Refugees within their own country, the Tourés defiantly channeled their anger into music, refusing to forsake centuries-old Malian traditions that equate music with life. They recruited drummer Nathanael Dembélé and formed Songhoy Blues, named after the culture they seek to honor with gentle songs like “Hometown” even as they back their harmonies with electric rock guitars and drum kits. Neither as rhythmically loping nor as hypnotic as the Tuareg songs of Tinariwen and Tamikrest, Songhoy Blues’ music is a brighter, harder-edged fusion of Western rock and blues and traditional West African folk, and has provided a tonic for other displaced citizens longing for home. (Northern Mali remains unstable despite international efforts to restore peace.)
Thanks to energetic club and festival shows, Songhoy Blues soon made a splashy entrance on the world stage. Their 2015 album debut “Music in Exile,” featuring legendary Saharan powerhouse Khaira Arby, was greeted enthusiastically by critics and fellow musicians. That year Songhoy Blues also appeared in director Johanna Schwartz’s sobering yet life-affirming documentary “They’ll Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile,” along with Arby, Bombino and Vieux Farka Touré.
The quartet’s second album, “Résistance,” produced by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner in London and released in June by Fat Possum, is a tougher effort, with fewer of the flowering desert melodies that prettied “Music in Exile.” Opening track “Voter” shifts between funk grooves and punky, confrontational guitar rounds and shouted exhortations, while James Brown-style horns blast through “Bamako” and grime MC Elf Kid’s urgent rap spikes the cheery “Mali Nord.” Iggy Pop intones, “Listen, you can hear the music of the spheres” on “Sahara,” whose droney riffs more closely resemble “Music in Exile,” as do “Alhakou” and the kora-stippled “Ici Bas.” With globe-trotting American violinist William Harvey adding complementary fills to “Hometown” and a children’s choir chiming in to reinforce the message of “One Colour,” it is a rousing statement of purpose and world citizenship.
Aquarium Drunkard presents Songhoy Blues at Teragram Ballroom, 1234 W. 7th St., Downtown LA, at 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19; $20. Info: (213) 689-9100. songhoyblues.com/us, facebook.com/pg/SonghoyBlues, teragramballroom.com