WHEN Malian quartet Songhoy Blues performed at last year's Celtic Connections, audiences were treated to a form of music appealingly dubbed “desert blues”. A user-friendly term, it sounds like it could have been dreamed up by a marketing agency and applied equally well to a perfume, a brand of jeans or a chain of upmarket Tex-Mex restaurants.

Don't be fooled. The slick label masks a single startling fact: by the very act of standing on a stage and playing their music, the four members of Songhoy Blues were risking death. Here, in a Scottish concert hall in 2015, was an example of politics and traditional music coming into sharp alignment.

“They are literally risking their lives when they go on stage in Africa,” says Donald Shaw, founder member of Capercaillie and artistic director of Celtic Connections. “And their music is absolutely steeped in traditional African melodies. They're not Western in the way we would consider.”

Natives of northern Mali, Songhoy Blues fell foul of Islamist group Ansar Dine in 2012. One of several separatist militias fighting the Malian government in a vicious civil war, Ansar Dine banned smoking, drinking and music. Transgressors were tortured, so many musicians simply fled. Playing music, already a way of life, became a political act too. Last year a documentary was made which featured the group. Its title? They Will Have To Kill Us First.

Songhoy Blues's countryman Toumani Diabate, Grammy Award-winning kora player and a guest at this year's Celtic Connections festival, can trace his lineage through 70 generations of musicians. There's a good reason, then, for applying words like “roots” to the music he makes. The same goes for musicians from any other country or culture, whether it's Scotland or Senegal, Ireland or India, who have grown up steeped in the tunes and songs of previous generations.

But at the same time, there's no doubt in Shaw's mind that as political events and social movements blow across the face of any given country, its folk music will often turn like a weathervane to mark the direction.

“Traditional music is still very much concerned with political issues,” agrees author, critic and world music expert Robin Denselow. “Certainly in Africa and across the Middle East, anyone playing music is making a political statement by kicking back against Islamic State. I'm going to Mali next week and there's a festival there whose subtext is a fightback by musicians against the Islamic State. And in Morocco there's a festival which isn't political as such, but it's a way for the authorities to promote the country as a haven from IS, when just along the coast in Libya musicians have had their instruments burned.”

Elsewhere, Senegalese singer Baaba Maal has called his new album The Traveller. He performed it at Celtic Connections last week.

“It's basically about travel broadening the mind,” says Denselow. “But on stage he uses it as an excuse to talk about enforced travel and migration and the refugee crisis. And in Mali, singer Oumou Sangare is very concerned with women's rights and female genital mutilation, and she's doing that using traditional forms. So wherever there is conflict, [traditional] music is a way of expressing opinions.”

Scotland has suffered nothing as stark as a blanket ban on playing music and nobody has been burning accordions or clarsachs. But conversations about national identity and self-governance which began in the Thatcher era and grew more clamorous in the 1990s have become some of the defining issues of post-Devolution Scotland. As a result, the last 20 years have seen our own brands of folk and traditional music enjoy a corresponding upward tick in popularity. Why? Because it's so well placed to comment on those same issues. Celtic Connections itself, founded in 1994, is emblematic of that swelling of interest.

What the period has witnessed, says Donald Shaw, is a “turnaround in the perception of what traditional music is, and its relevance to Scotland. The resurgence of the folk scene has come through a new generation of musicians who have absolute confidence in and respect for the music, which I don't think was there 20 or 30 years ago”.

In Scotland today, he adds, “if you're playing traditional music it's almost a political statement because traditional music is wrapped up in a historical legacy – and in the case of much Gaelic music, in a story of oppression and survival. So once the river started flowing faster, it was only going to get bigger and wider. That's what we're seeing now, the fruits of that change.”

We've been here before, of course. Artists such as Martyn Bennett, who breathed new life into a relatively moribund folk scene in the 1990s, had forerunners in the late 1950s and 1960s, another period in which questions of political identity found voice in traditional music and song. Back then much of it was not overtly political – nobody ever wrote a thesis about Marxist messages in the songs of The Incredible String Band or the music of Bert Jansch – but it drew some of its vitality and energy from its wider political and cultural context.

In England around the same time, folk musicians were being given political focus by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament while in the packed pubs of Glasgow in the late 1950s and early 1960s, singers like Matt McGinn spearheaded a folk revival whose political inspiration came from the city's strong socialist heritage. Plot a line through the howffs of the Broomielaw and you can link socialist icon John Maclean at one end with a certain Bob Dylan in far away Greenwich Village at the other.

“There's an extraordinary story that Pete Seeger tells about him receiving recordings of sessions that were going on in [Glasgow's] Victoria Bar in the 1950s, and he was sending these tapes on to Dylan,” says Shaw. “These were Scots songs and ballads that influenced Dylan, and through the whole of the 1960s, him and artists like Joan Baez were hugely influenced by this catalogue of Scottish folk songs.”

But if two decades of national rebirth and its accompanying cultural renaissance have produced a large cadre of talented young folk musicians, it doesn't follow that their concerns are limited to Scottish matters or borders. Many are doing what Scots have always done and looking outwards at the world. Some then dip into the vast reservoir of traditional songs and melodies to find material which can be re-framed and re-contextualised to make sense of that world. But others are writing new songs, offering oblique comments on everything from the Occupy movement to domestic violence to the same mass migration of people that Baaba Maal tackles in his new album.

Young Scottish folk singer Ewan McClelland is one who has responded, penning a song called Lampedusa which he has released as a charity single for Doctors Without Borders. The title refers to the small Italian island which is one of the main European entry points for migrants from North Africa. It's also one of the deadliest: in a single four-month period last year, 1600 migrants drowned trying to reach it from Libya.

“For years I’ve sung traditional songs of emigration, thinking them some of the most powerful ballads I’ve ever come across,” McClelland explains on his website. “It is with these songs still ringing in my ears that I’ve watched the migrant crisis unfold and intensify …With all this in mind I thought I would try and write a simple song that described the plight and the journey of a migrant today, hopefully with some of the sympathy and compassion of our own tales.”

Later this year, meanwhile, the Edinburgh International Festival will present a show about migration called Flit. It's notable that the Festival is employing as its collaborator on the project the musician Martin Green, accordionist in Anglo-Scottish folk supergroup Lau.

Singer-songwriter Karine Polwart is another who regularly tackles current events. She's best known, perhaps, for Cover Your Eyes, a finely-honed barb aimed at Donald Trump's ill-starred golf development on the Aberdeenshire coast.

She too has responded to the refugee crisis and at Celtic Connections tonight she'll take to the stage alongside 10 other female singers and musicians to perform Songs Of Separation.

A collaborative project and album which was initially intended as a response to the referendum, it grew instead to encompass issues ranging from the personal to the environmental. And with a title like that, how could it not reflect what was happening in the Mediterranean?

“Writing the album took place last summer just as the migrant crisis was kicking in and that definitely changed our take on it,” Polwart explains. “There's one piece in particular, Over The Border, which is explicitly inspired by that idea – of people being trapped, stateless, having nowhere to rest.”

Another song, London Lights, is older, a music hall number from a bygone era. But Polwart and her colleagues found in it a theme which seemed to chime perfectly with austerity Britain.

“It's about a woman abandoned by her family and living impoverished on the streets of London. Singing that now, it's pretty close to the bone. It has contemporary relevance and I think that's the power of older songs. They may have been written at a particular place and time, but sadly those things never go away. Human experience is constant.”

Human technology isn't constant, however. It's ever changing, which brings to mind the old joke about how many folk singers it takes to change a light bulb. (Answer: two. One to change the lightbulb, one to sing about how good the old one was.)

But while folk and traditional music may not tackle subjects such as the internet head on, the fact that any of us can take out a smartphone and watch YouTube footage of boats floundering on rocky coastlines offers an insistent personal connection with world events that songwriters can't ignore.

“Things that 100 years ago would have been distant and taken time to become news are instantaneous now, so your connection to other people and other things happening in other parts of the world is instant,” says Polwart. “That's quite a different place to be in. But it can be overwhelming. Musicians and writers have a job to do in slowing some of that stuff down and getting the issues and the context behind it. But for anyone who has an element of documentary to their craft – whether it's film, challenging theatre, enquiring songwriting – this is a really important time.”

Sometimes, though, you don't need words or a singer. Sometimes even a form of music can have political resonance. Brazil's Tropicalia movement of the 1960s, a blending of traditional art forms and Western influences, so terrified the authoritarian government that two of its leading lights, musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, were imprisoned.

Sometimes, in fact, even just an instrument itself can do the trick. Whether the 1746 Act of Proscription did actually ban the Highland pipes is a moot point, but the instrument's association with the Jacobite cause and the Highland clans that supported it, and its deliberate assimilation into the musical make-up of the nascent British army, show its potency as a political emblem.

In Basque musical culture, meanwhile, the Txalaparta plays a similar role. A massive marimba-type percussion instrument, it's played by either two or four people with truncheon-like sticks. Its origins lie in pre-history, but in more recent times it has been associated with cider-making – the boards of wooden Basque cider presses were traditionally played in a similar fashion. Interestingly, it was a dying sight at Basque ceremonies until the 1960s, the decade which saw the rise of Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and an increase in Basque nationalism. Today the Txalaparta is a common sight across the Basque region. “I've stood in a park in Bilbao where these four guys were playing this massive instrument,” says Donald Shaw. “It was almost like a political rally. It was incredible.”

It's too easy, perhaps, for Celtic Connections audiences to settle into their seats and have their senses thrilled by sweet voices, exemplary playing, exotic musical treats and virtuoso performances. Too easy to forget that under the stars are scorched earth, battered buildings and blood-soaked streets. And too easy to forget that the beautiful songs they hear reflect human life that in many places is hard, painful, short and dangerous, or restricted by illness, poverty, lack of education or an overbearing patriarchy.

“I think there's an emergent willingness to tackle what's happening in the world,” says Polwart, speaking for herself and for her generation of traditional musicians. The trick is, she adds, to do it in ways which are oblique but powerful so that the songs lose none of their beauty even as they ramp up their political and social content.

“We have to find ways of approaching things that are happening now which move people and make them think differently, and I think the non-polemical stuff has more power. It's not that polemical stuff isn't important. There are occasions when it is. But giving space to reflect, taking time to question, think, challenge and connect with other people's experiences – that's our job.”

Songs Of Separation is at the Mitchell Theatre tonight (7.30pm) as part of Celtic Connections, which runs until February 1. The Sunday Herald is the festival's media partner. For programme information and tickets visit www.celticconnections.com