When it comes to bringing world music to the west, the question of authenticity is a tricky one. Keep it too real and it’s very hard for an audience to find a way in, with the cultural and spiritual context lost on them (I write as someone who saw Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan). Go too much the other way and that original spark can get watered down to a frustrating degree. It’s essentially the tragedy of the Bhundu Boys’ career in a nutshell.
Songhoy Blues, so far, seem to have hit the sweet spot right in the middle. First given a platform by Africa Express and with a debut album produced by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the band landed straight into a world of BBC 6Music, NME and mainstream festivals rather than existing on the fringes. The trick was that they were an African band playing guitar music (or vice versa), drawing on the best of both worlds. Their live show was a joy, as was debut Music In Exile.
No doubt bolstered by their success so far, second album Resistance offers more of the same. Taking the Bhundus’ approach that if an audience can’t understand what you’re singing about you better make them dance, it bottles their dynamic stage presence perfectly – now with an added brass section. Again that question of context is an interesting one, whether the reduction of their extraordinary life experiences (forced to leave their Timbuktu homes due to civil conflict and the imposition of Sharia Law) to a jolly, toe tapping 45 minutes is missing the point slightly. If there is anger, sadness and defiance in the lyrics we’re none the wiser.
The temptation to throw in a succession of accessible guest names, Amadou et Mariam style, has largely been resisted. What Iggy Pop adds to ‘Sahara’ – some baffling lyrics about there being no Kentucky Fried Chicken aside – isn’t clear, but the appearance of London MC Elf Kid on ‘Mali Nord’ suggests that some more culture clashing might be around the corner. With Resistance Songhoy Blues have proved that, by staying true to themselves and their music, they can now take it anywhere they want.