Minutes before Songhoy Blues made their way center stage to appear before an eager, excited crowd, I saw them huddled together behind a pair of windows placed above Martyrs’ kitchen doors.
From a distance, they looked calm, cool and collected. I saw one of them flash a smile complemented by a loud, boisterous laugh, while another clapped his hands in a way anyone would when a well-received joke travels from the mind, reaches the heart and finally, rests on the soul.
Comprised of Oumar Touré (bassist), Garba Touré (guitarist), Aliou Touré (vocalist) and Nathanael “Nat” Demebélé (drummer), Songhoy Blues is evidence that music, as its core, is a movement.
Last year, the foursome released Music in Exile, a 14-track collection that speaks volumes to the foundation of a folk song, which is firmly built on the idea that there is simply no place like home.
Their U.S. tour, which includes a stop at Martyrs’, April 9, is to celebrate the release of They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile, a new film by BBC World Wide North America.
Onstage, Garba sports a black t-shirt with the movie’s title. His guitar is wrapped around him, and every now and then, he hugs it with care. The silver watch on his wrist slides up and down along his arm, but it doesn’t distract him from pulling on his steel strings.
Often, Aliou’s lips kissed the tip of the microphone and stretched his arms out wide. While his body remained upright, his feet traveled in different directions. His moves appeared calculated, but his spirit danced freely.
The crowd responded, and they mimicked his moves. After nearly every song, Aliou checked in with his fans, asking them if they were still with him, if they were still doing good. Glasses were frequently raised and clinked together to show off their attentiveness.
Their one-hour set called for bodies to break out of their comfort zones. Songhoy Blues’ songs, which were sung in a native language, created a new world blended by blues, rattled by rock and mended by memories of Mali, politically, religiously and racially charged environment.
In that moment, amidst a frenzied Chicago circle, the Songhoy Blues’ men were free and importantly, strengthened by their struggles. They were liberated, jolted by lightning strikes of power and pleasure.
That is, after all, what African music is all about. For Aliou, he reminded the crowd: “Dance, life, happiness – you have to enjoy it like that.”