"Music in Exile" is the title of Songhoy Blues's debut album, and such song titles as "Sahara" and "Mali" specify where the quartet is exiled from. Yet the "desert blues" identified with Mali is a small part of the band's eclectic sound. At U Street Music Hall on Thursday night, Songhoy Blues exuberantly integrated various African and Western styles but most often sounded like an Anglo-American rock band.
The principal reasons for that were Nathanael Dembele's straight-ahead drumming and the group's compact lineup. African-pop bands usually muster more than four players, and almost always feature multiple percussionists. Most of the songs in Songhoy Blues's 90-minute set were played by just Dembele, guitarist Garba Toure and bassist Oumar Toure, although frontman Aliou Toure added second guitar to some of them. (The three Toures are not related; their surname is the Smith of West Africa.)
Three of the band members fled the rural north after Islamist zealots took control, banning music. But the group formed in Bamako, and has an urban outlook. Rather than the robes and turbans worn by such desert-rooted ensembles as Tinariwen, Songhoy Blues was outfitted in jeans and black T-shirts. Aliou Toure sported a fedora.
If the group's performance lacked African music's trademark polyrhythms, it was nonetheless intricate. Garba Toure proved an exceptionally versatile guitarist, often playing lead and rhythm in the same passages, and venturing into blues, rock, funk and reggae, with jazz-metal flourishes. Sometimes his chiming circular riffs were closer to the styles of Senegal and Nigeria than to such Mali-blues stalwarts as the late Ali Farka Toure (for whom the young guitarist's father played percussion).
The limited instrumentation didn't prevent the band from also devising other musical dialogues. Call-and-response vocals enlivened the material, as did parrying drums and guitar and, periodically, the chatter of that second guitar. The group did without the various guest stars — including Iggy Pop, Damon Albarn and British rapper Elf Kid — heard on its recordings. Yet the music never sounded confined.
Songhoy Blues's lyrics are mostly in Songhai and French, although there's more English on the band's recent second album, "Resistance." Aliou Toure's English is good, as he demonstrated in introducing some of the songs. The singer, who's also a spirited dancer, spoke about the plight of refugees in northern Mali who were driven from their homes by war. But he encouraged listeners to temper negative news from Mali and Africa, and led them in enthusiastic chants of "Sahara!" and "Together!" — the latter a refrain of "One Colour," a universal-brotherhood plea. When there are only four musicians on stage, it doesn't hurt to call out to all of humanity.