Songhoy Blues is a four-strong “desert blues” band, based in Mali. It is made up of musicians who fled northern Mali after a loose assortment of militant Islamist groups captured the territory and implemented strict sharia law – including the prohibition of secular music – in spring 2012. The musicians first met at a wedding in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, and started playing together to help recreate the rich tradition of northern Malian music for the growing population of refugees in the south.
Musicians had long been important social figures in Mali. They occupied a specific, revered cultural class, called the “griots”, and their role encompassed entertainer, reporter, historian, and political commentator. Their unique power and influence explains why the invading Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the largest of the fundamental Islamist groups, were particularly keen to block their activities in August 2012.
The official sentence for breaching the music ban was a public whipping, although Songhoy Blues’ founding member and guitarist Garba Touré was threatened with having his hand cut off if he continued playing. Radio stations were burned down, musical instruments were smashed, and there were reports of people being beaten by the occupying militia just for having polyphonic ringtones.
The Malian military stepped in to counteract the Islamist groups’ advance in February 2013, with the help of troops from France and surrounding African countries. But emotional residue from the conflict lingers, and – despite the lifting of sharia law – many musicians continue to self-censor, fearful of the Islamist groups’ return and retribution.
Garba Touré left his hometown of Diré, upstream from Timbuktu along the river Niger, once his safety in northern Mali had become untenable. He settled in Bamako, 1000km away, alongside thousands of other refugees. Here he met two more musicians from the Songhoy tribe (a North Malian ethnic group), Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, and local drummer Nathanael Dembélé.
As a band the foursome played rough and rowdy blues-rock anthems, the lyrics of which called for an end to the conflict. Their audiences, which packed out Bamako bars and restaurants, were a mix of refugee Songhoys and Tuaregs – long-feuding northern Malian ethnic groups united against the insurgent Islamist groups.
In September 2013, documentary filmmaker Johanna Schwartz wrote for Index on Censorship magazine on the censorship and persecution that musicians in Mali have faced since the ban on music: “There is a fear that freedoms may not be so easily restored,” wrote Schwartz. Today, although the ban has been theoretically lifted, the fear remains. “Because of the violence, it is still impossible for me to play music in my hometown,” said Touré, who is from the northern city Gao.
The band is now based in Bamako, where the members long for the weekend to perform in local bars. But as music was being driven out of the country — even those with musical ringtones on their mobile phones faced crackdowns — many musicians fled Mali. They Will Have to Kill Us First, Schwartz’s feature-length documentary, follows the story of Mali’s musical superstars as they fight for their right to sing.