By Anastasia Gorelova
LONDON (Reuters) - Three years ago, the singer of Malian quartet Songhoy Blues was fleeing Islamist militants who had banned all music. This Thursday, his group electrified the crowd with its relentlessly upbeat African rhythms at London's Village Underground venue.
Many musicians joined the flood of civilians fleeing northern Mali after Islamist militants took over there in 2012, said Songhoy Blues singer and guitarist Aliou Touré, before the band's sold-out gig.
"It was a question of life or death there, not only for us in particular but for the whole population," he said.
Mali used to be a rare stable democracy in a tumultuous northwest Africa, famed for its music festivals, towering mud mosques and bejewelled ancient manuscripts. Then the Islamists arrived. They torched Timbuktu's main library, whipped couples walking in public, and banned music.
"Radical jihad reigned," Touré said. "They see music in your phone -- they take it away and break it. They see you with an instrument in your hands -- they break it."
After escaping Timbuktu for Bamako, Mali's capital in the south, Touré met guitarist Garba Touré and bassist Oumar Touré, who also left Timbuktu as the militants advanced. The musicians share a common last name but are not related. Drummer Nathanael Dembélé joined in Bamako.
The band initially played at friends' weddings and events. Then the Africa Express project, which brings African music into the mainstream, discovered them.
Collaborations followed with prominent musicians like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist Nick Zinner. The band opened for Blur's Damon Albarn during his gig at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014.
In February, Songhoy Blues released their debut album 'Music in Exile.' It includes their hit 'Al Hassidi Terei' and tracks the culture and conflict of Mali.
"We are the Mali ambassadors. The moral pressure follows us wherever we play. So it is very important for us to make sure we keep the face of our culture," Touré said.
"The words of music are often more important than any sort of political discourse," he added. "Everybody listens to it, it gets everywhere. When people listen to your music ... your message travels across the world in an instant."
The band's music is a fusion of rhythms and tunes from northern and southern Mali but includes influences from Western musicians like Jimi Hendrix.
The band showcased their debut album at SXSW festival in the United States and will play a few festivals this summer. They return to London for a show at KOKO on November 4th.
(Editing by Katharine Houreld)