FOR IBRAHIM KELLY, the Dusu Mali Band is just as much about promoting awareness and spreading a positive message as it is a musical project. "Dusu," after all, translates to "heart." The group (Kelly mans guitar, vocals, and djembe; Tyler Smith on guitar and percussion; Justin Keeth, bass; and Joshua Conneran on drums) encapsulates and confronts the one thing that typically spells doom for young bands on their new album, Never Give Up.
"We had to tell ourselves so many times to never give up," says Smith. "No matter how hard this shit gets, or how many people quit or don't have the same ideas as us, this is still only the beginning."
Born in Mali—and a nephew of seminal Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré—Kelly was raised on music as a cultural given, learning African rhythms on percussion instruments and guitar by listening and feeling rather than traditional study. After moving to Portland, he gigged with David Ornette Cherry's jazz group before a chance meeting at a drum circle with Smith.
"You couldn't find anybody who really knew drums there," says Kelly. "But [Smith] studied African drums. If you go down under a bridge and you see a real drummer, you know."
Having undergone several lineup changes since forming in 2010, the core four have now cemented, thrusting the band toward the busiest time in their short history.
Never Give Up takes the percussive elements of traditional Malian rhythms and splices it with thick grooves of reggae, psychedelic rock, blues, and back again. Multilingual singing comes quickly from Kelly, and songs erupt out of the gate with positive energy, only to give way to extended fusion jams with a foundation of repetition that accentuates the djembe downbeats and the simultaneously fluid and turbulent guitar.
The band's peripheral goals are forthcoming—high on the list is a nonprofit project to travel back to Mali, a place Smith and Kelly visited together in January of 2012, to help provide instruments to Malian musicians following the region's Islamist-led music regulation. Additionally, Dusu Mali Band have a blueprint for possibly curating a summer music festival in the coming years.
"We wanna do something that other people haven't," says Kelly. "We feel like we need to do this."