Album Review: Songhoy Blues – Optimisme [Transgressive Records; October 2020]

Songhoy Blues stay true to form with bold third LP Optimisme – released via Transgressive Records.

If there is one thing the world needs right now – not least the beleaguered music industry – it is hope. Desert Blues luminaries Songhoy Blues seek to deliver just that with their third LP released via Transgressive Records, the succinctly titled Optimisme.

Songhoy Blues formed ten years ago in Mali’s capital Bamako against a backdrop of civil conflict and political exile, experiences which – along with an appetite for Western genres like rock, R&B and hip-hop – shaped their unapologetic and often confrontational approach to songwriting on acclaimed debut album Music in Exile (2015) and its equally celebrated follow-up Resistance (2017). Lyrically, a similar theme pervades the music of the hard-hitting four piece; it is one of positivity in the face of adversity, rapturous resilience and resolute defiance. On this latest offering – produced by industry veteran Matt Sweeney and recorded in Brooklyn, New York City alongside Daniel Schlett (The War on Drugs, Modest Mouse, Ghostface Killah) – the desert rockers remain true to form.

Across the album’s eleven tracks, the socially-conscious quartet – Garba Touré, Aliou Touré, Oumar Touré and Nathanael Dembélé – address wide-ranging political issues such as gender inequality and youth empowerment. Thunderous lead single and album opener ‘Badala’ (which loosely translates from the native Songhai language as ‘We don’t give a fuck’) narrates the story of an unnamed Malian woman who sets out to defy the patriarchy in her homeland. It’s a rousing, punky number which serves as an instant reminder of the band’s ability to meld infectious melody with blistering power and socially-acute narrative.

‘Barre’ (Songhai for ‘Change’) is an assured, chorus-heavy invocation for young voices to be heard in the political sphere: (“Youth! Let’s rise for this change! Just as Spring knew how to welcome Summer, And Summer knew how to welcome Winter, old age must welcome youth”) whilst the frenetic, fuzzy guitar vamps of Gabi (‘Strength’) – a track declaring solidarity with feminist causes – are redolent of fellow West African soul-rebel Bombino. ‘Worry’ marks Songhoy Blues’ first original track written in the English language: perhaps a recognition of their increasing appeal in Western spheres. In the UK at least, audiences of the band’s famously dynamic live shows have swelled from 80-capacity shows at venues like Dalston Jazz Quarters to – in recent years – performing on that high-altar of British music, Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. Optimisme is a bold and ebullient album which – stylistically – marks a return to the stark, taut riffs and traditional grooves of their debut LP Music in Exile. Lead guitarist Garba Touré exudes confidence throughout, delivering stellar solo breakouts such as on penultimate track ‘Dournia’ (Songhai for ‘Life’) – a track on which the band rebuke the materialistic, selfish vogues of the modern consumer world.

Swan song ‘Kouma’ gives the band space to explore a more tender soundscape: resounding, antiphonal vocals linger over sparing traditional acoustic guitar, creating a gorgeous and juxtaposing down-tempo closing track for an album on which Songhoy Blues surely underscore their label as “the future of African rock and roll”.