Howard Assembly Room is somewhat renowned for booking interesting names for their grand seated venue, and Songhoy Blues certainly one of those. Pushed together by the civil conflict in Mali in recent years, the band piqued the interest of Damon Albarn’s African Express, and released their debut album Music In Exile early in 2015. From there, their trajectory has shown no sign of plateauing, and it showed in tonight’s performance.

Bouncing on-stage, slickly dressed, lead singer Aliou Touré addresses the crowd boisterously: “What is happening? You’re all sitting. You’re not at a cinema, you know what I mean? At least take your jacket off!” This set the tone for the entire evening; whilst the crowd remained nervously seated for the first couple of songs, after much encouragement, people began to line the sides of the hall to dance. One man in a wheelchair and oxygen machine was helped onto the stage halfway through for a boogie, and the final song was met with an exuberant stage invasion and some stunning dance displays on the part of the audience.

Each member of the band is an expert at their instruments: lead guitarist Garba Touré shreds eye-wateringly complicated guitar solos halfway through every song, and Aliou lets rip some truly joyful dance moves, somehow managing to make his instructions to the sound guy part of his routine. There is no ego, all stemming from an awareness that their music and the cause for which they play are bigger than them as a band. At one point, they pause the set to advocate for Water Aid in Mali, saying, “One cent is not too little but one thousand is not too much, so your help will be very welcome”, and fundraisers are rattling collection buckets at the end of the show. It is a refreshing reminder to sceptics that music does not have to be purely for pleasure, that it can serve a wider purpose and bring people from Mali and Leeds together in ways previously unexplored.

In an industry focused on selling star quality and celebrity potential, Songhoy Blues are a welcome break from all that. They play their instruments, play them well, and end the evening hoping that their audience was able to smile for just a few pure hours of the day.

Featured image: The Guardian

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