Sounds That Cross Borders: African Northwest Blues

Not long ago we reviewed that musical phenomenon called “desert blues”, a magical fusion of rock instrumentation and regional roots – Tuareg, Malian, and North African music. But we immediately realized that the crossing of sounds beyond borders was even more expansive and that the report deserved a second part, this time focusing on the influences of Moroccan music and neighboring areas of northwestern Africa.

The incidence of Moroccan culture in the world of popular music isn’t new. Just go back to the dawn of psychedelia, when Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones traveled to Jajouka and was spellbound by the trance rhythms of the local musicians, or when Jimi Hendrix attended a gnawi ceremony in Essaouira and was convinced that the sound of Guembri healed souls. Other names such as Santana and Jefferson Airplane can easily be added to that list.

Located just below Morocco and Algeria, we find Mali, the birthplace of a key name for understanding African blues: Ali Farka Touré. Born in 1939, in the Muslim village of Kanau, in the northwestern region of Timbuktu, Ali spent his childhood working in the fields. Still, he always showed a great interest in music, through traditional instruments such as the gurkel (small guitar) and the ngoni (4-stringed lute). Already as a teenager, he came across the guitar and knew right away that this was his thing.

Thanks to his work as a radio sound engineer, Ali Farka Touré was able to access different musical sources, especially African-American, and thus broaden his creative horizons. Known as “the African bluesman”, also as “the African John Lee Hooker”, he insisted that his music wasn’t blues, having stated: “To me, the blues is a kind of soap powder, my music is older than the blues.” He passed away in Bamako in 2006 and left a huge musical legacy.


The other mythical name of African blues is that of Boubacar Traoré, a countryman and almost contemporary of Ali Touré. Born in 1942 in Kayes, Mali, he had taught himself to play guitar and developed a unique style that blended American blues, Arab music, and pentatonic structures found in West Africa’s Mande cultural region. His songs became popular in the 1960s, after Malian independence. But it didn’t go well for him financially: royalties weren’t paid to musicians and he had to do odd jobs to survive.

In the 1970s, Boubacar Traoré’s popularity waned. And by the next decade, many thought he was dead. His rediscovery only happened in the late 1980s, when he signed his first record deal after a British producer found an old tape of one of his old radio performances. His first album, Mariama, was released in 1990. Since then, he has enjoyed international recognition, releasing ten more studio albums and touring Europe, Africa and North America.


Bab L’ Bluz

Straight from the city of Marrakech, Bab L’ Bluz was formed in 2018 with the aim of combining Moroccan music with modern sounds related to rock and blues. Their source is Gnawa music, which was brought by the sub-Saharans who came to the Maghreb as slaves. They revolutionized some local traditions by placing a woman singer Yousra Mansour as a bandleader in a role that has always been filled by men. She also plays the guembri, a three-stringed bass lute with a skin-covered body typical of the Gnawa people, seconded by Brice Bottin playing something similar but in higher tuning, with a more guitar-like sound.

Colored by a clearly psychedelic tinge, Bab L’ Blu define themselves as “acid blues from the Maghreb”, or even as “a gateway to blues” according to their name’s translation. Instead of singing in languages ​​like French or Arabic, they choose the challenging position of doing it in the Moroccan Darija dialect. In mid-2020 they managed to capture their magic formula in a first album titled Nayda. By then, Bottin explained their cross-border music: “The African blues includes other pentatonic music: Mauritanian Hassani, the Berber music found in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, the music of Mali, which is the true source of the blues, as well as the true source of Gnawa music.”


Songhoy Blues

Marked by the events of the 2012 Mali War, Songhoy Blues honors the blues in its pure form of expression, reflecting the social conflicts and sorrows of the people. The band used to be confined to the Bamako club circuit until they were called upon to collaborate with Africa Express, a collective of American and European musicians and producers led by Damon Albarn. This is how they met Nick Zinner, guitarist of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in 2013 to work together on a first song. The result was so good that they met again in a recording studio to work on their debut album, Music in Exile, released in early 2015 and described by NME as “a masterpiece of desert blues; blending American guitar licks with Malian groove.”

The four members of Songhoy Blues don’t deny their roots and the music of their grandparents but affirm that their main diet was hip-hop and R&B, as well as classics such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. After their acclaimed first record, the band joined the line-up of the best festivals and was invited to open for artists such as Alabama Shakes and Julian Casablancas. In 2017 they released their second album Résistance. And by the end of 2020 came their third album, Optimisme, released by Fat Possum Records.


Nuru Kane

Originally from Médina, in the historic heart of Dakar, Nuru Kane is the first Senegalese musician to connect local rhythms with the ritual music of the Gnawa. He’s a kind of musical mediator between North Africa and West Africa. Usually backed by his band Bayefall Gnawa, the singer-songwriter excels at playing guitar, bass and guembri. There he’s seconded by Thierry Fournel (oud, sanza thumb piano) and Djéli Makan Sissoko (n’goni lute, tama percussion). Together they’re pure energy on stage, full of musical surprises, including their essentially acoustic instrumentation that sounds like a true electric orchestra.

Of course, African blues is also part of Nuru Kane’s musical influences. The mix of sounds can already be traced on his debut album Sigil from 2006. Then followed 2010’s Number One Bus and 2013’s Exile, well-nourished albums that go from blues to funk through mbalax and flamenco, without forgetting that gnawa music that has deeply marked him and to which he pays a vibrant tribute. Mayam is his latest and most recent work, released in 2021.