Review: Songhoy Blues + Blaenavon @ Koko (London, 4th November 2015)

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Songhoy Blues, the new Malian sensation, can no longer play in their native region because of the music ban imposed by jihadists back in 2012. Instead they have built an audience and reputation beyond Malian borders, becoming one of the most ambitious projects shaped on African soil.

Their desert-rock/blues, which is still a trademark for the ensembles coming from the Saharan region, has sparked interest and excitement in the Songhai tradition with Western music enthusiasts going mad for the gripping rhythms, captivating dance moves and charming melodies performed by these musicians.

The band was supported by the fresh-faced up-and-coming Hampshire trio, Blaenavon, and their blend of guitar-centric indie rock and vocal harmonies. Shortly after Songhoy Blues’ appeared on the Koko stage, and this London show indicated a definitive stamp of approval on their Malian sound. The crowd, which filled the Camden venue from floor to ceiling, couldn’t help being carried along by the musical energy radiating from the band. They twisted and turned, following the moves of Aliou Touré throughout the two-hour concert.

What the quartet presented was a well-crafted show. The band’s natural environment is indeed the live one. On stage the musicians made tribute to Ali Farka Touré, one of Mali’s greatest artists, then had a field day with the R&B and indie arrangements inspired by Songhoy Blues’ recent collaboration with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner.

But the crowd puller was actually the stage-presence of the musicians. Aliou Touré is a rampant dancer, and his band-mates followed his enthusiastic mood.

The contrast between the appetising guitar playing of Garba Touré, Oumar Touré’s groovy bass lines and the wild drumming of Nathanial ‘Nat’ Dembele led the audience into a rhythm-induced frenzy with songs like ‘Irganda’, ‘Al Hassidi Terei’ and the closing crowd-pleaser ‘Soubour’. However, there were more reflective moments, such as the sympathetic homage paid by the musicians to their homeland Mali.

In little more than ninety minutes Songhoy Blues showed why the hype surrounding their name and the superlatives associated with their music are well deserved. Indeed, they are exponents of the ‘new African’ sound and a solid and well-grounded project that looks set both to revere and refresh its tradition.

Songhoy Blues will be back in London at the Roundhouse next May, so if you missed them last week you can catch up with the development of this African sound in six months’ time.

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