DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Mali, in northwest Africa, is one of the world's musical cradles. Its rich traditions helped give birth to American blues and jazz. But today, Mali is in turmoil. The country recently suffered a long civil war, and the government fell to a coup in August. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports that Malian musicians are still creating despite this chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONGHOY BLUES SONG, "BADALA")
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: The band Songhoy Blues plays rollicking music of resistance against the political and social threats its country is facing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BADALA")
SONGHOY BLUES: (Singing in non-English language).
TSIOULCAS: These Malian musicians came together in 2012, after attacks by local and foreign jihadists forced people to flee the country's northern cities and its vast Saharan desert. Musicians were among the refugees because the jihadists also banned music.
ALIOU TOURE: When the civil war start in Mali, when they banned the music, all the people from the north of Mali has to move to the south just to be safe.
TSIOULCAS: That's Aliou Toure, the lead singer of Songhoy Blues. Most of the band's members fled the north to the country's capital, Bamako.
TOURE: When you come far away from your hometown and you meet each other, you speak the same language. It's kind of like a satisfaction of nostalgia when you meet someone who speak your language, who do what you do, who love something that you love.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BON BON")
SONGHOY BLUES: (Singing in French).
TSIOULCAS: What they do has earned fans around the world, including Damon Albarn and Brittany Howard. They're a thoroughly modern band, but they're also walking in the footsteps of some of Mali's most revered musicians, like Ali Farka Toure and Salif Keita. And like them, the music of Songhoy Blues is born of struggle - and not just political. When I spoke to Aliou Toure - no relation to Ali Farka - he had just recovered from a bout of malaria. And like so many other places in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has shut down his country. He says enduring each hurdle is like surfing.
TOURE: As every single band in the world right now, we just keep surfing on the waves, see what's going to happen next day, what's going to happen next month.
TSIOULCAS: The pandemic shutdown, though, has created some interesting creative opportunities for artists. It's given Songhoy Blues time to write new music, and it's provided a respite for one of the country's most beloved singers Oumou Sangare.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DJOUKOUROU")
OUMOU SANGARE: (Singing in non-English language).
TSIOULCAS: Sangare spent much of the coronavirus shutdown in the U.S., first in New York and then in Baltimore. She's since returned to her home in Bamako. And she says the confinement was actually nourishing.
SANGARE: (Through interpreter) I rejoiced in my confinement. I've never had the chance to rest like that in the 30 years of my career. Confinement has served me well. It's served me to sit down and think how I can continue with my career.
TSIOULCAS: That period of reflection gave Sangare the creative energy to start work on a new album herself. But Sangare, also speaking from Bamako, acknowledges that civil strife has taken a severe toll across the nation across ethnic and geographic boundaries.
SANGARE: (Through interpreter) The country has suffered so much. The country has had many difficulties. The North suffers. The Center suffers, also the South. The whole country is suffering. I think that the Malian must unite. That's my point of view. It is unity that makes strength.
TSIOULCAS: For years, musicians have been at the forefront of urging Malians to stay united and to stand for peace. Their voices are now again at the forefront, trying to spark the country's courage. Songhoy Blues decided to name its latest album "Optimisme" - optimism.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORRY")
SONGHOY BLUES: (Singing) Don't worry. You're gonna be happy. Keep working today. That smile will come one day. Don't worry. You're gonna be happy. Keep fighting today. That smile will come one day.
TSIOULCAS: Lead singer Aliou Toure says he's learned that it's the only way forward.
TOURE: That's the only thing keeping people smiling, and that's the only way to give ourselves a hope. It's the best way to keep yourself alive. To be optimists, I think, is one of the biggest message ever the whole world need to hear right now.
TSIOULCAS: It's a message that Songhoy Blues and Mali can take to the wider world during very troubled times.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONGHOY BLUES SONG, "WORRY")
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