A profile in courage but also groove, Johanna Schwartz’s survey of Mali’s musical life post—Shariah law stands as an invigorating rebuke to Hollywood’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrots and Rock the Kasbahs: Here, the lives of everyday folks in the war-torn desert are more than just local color used to offset an American star’s personal improvement.
In 2012, jihadis seized northern Mali and banned all music; local musicians, many of them internationally celebrated, had to choose between hiding and exile. Schwartz follows several performers, illuminating their hard choices while letting them speak about their horrors and hopes.
Saharan guitar masters Songhoy Blues, from Timbuktu, leave their homeland and find success abroad, eventually playing with Blur’s Damon Albarn; others, like the indomitable singer Khaira Arby, head to Mali’s south, where they risk some private performances and plot their return to the national stage. The music is prickling, droning, funky, hypnotic — a stiff breeze blowing warmly over the desert.
Schwartz employs onscreen text to explicate the political situation, but the musicians themselves tell the story best, whether in lyrics rapped and sung or in defiant interviews. The film ends in early 2015, after elections in Mali and a loosening of the official restrictions, but the triumphant public concert of the final moments is still tense: The fundamentalists might not be in charge, but they could be in the crowd. As a look at geopolitics, the film is limited, but as a musical doc it’s strong — and it’s best as the movie to recommend old white Americans go see as a reminder that people everywhere remain people.
They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile
Directed by Johanna Schwartz
Opens March 4, Village East Cinema