The steady, stinging pluck of Bassekou Kouyaté’s ngoni, the traditional, lute-like African stringed instrument, suggests dust hitting your face on a Sahel wind at dusk, when the day at last starts to cool. An innovator within his tradition, Kouyaté has rigged his ngoni’s cowskin body with pickups and a wah-wah pedal, tingeing that wind with psychedelia, with distortion and drone, an electric blast from the Niger Delta. In his playing the meditative meets the rhapsodic, the ancient ways edge toward the Western pop that long ago grew out of them. Tragically, senselessly, rather than being officially celebrated in his homeland, Kouyaté, like all the great Malian musicians featured in this doc, finds himself unable to play in large portions of it. Fundamentalist Islam has spread, and with it a Shariah injunction against secular music and dance. Lutz Gregor’s film, as beautiful in its photography as the desert blues Kouyaté plays, tracks four Malian musicians in the weeks before 2015’s Festival of the Niger in Southern Mali. There, the great world-pop singer Fatoumata “Fatou” Diawara will for the first time sing in the country of her birth. Before that marvel of a performance, Diawara will travel the country, despairing and defiant: In a village, before an audience of a dozen women, she sings a vigorous plea of a ballad exhorting them not to mutilate their daughters in the name of circumcision. Also speaking truth in a land whose leaders fear it is rapper Master Soumy, whose rhymes denounce extremist Islam, and guitar hero Ahmed Ag Kaedi, who with the other featured musicians records a stirring multilingual protest song and video. First-time feature director Gregor never imposes a narrative arc on his subjects; instead, we meet them, hear their hopes and their fears, and then savor performances of singular beauty, power, and invention.
Directed by Lutz Gregor
Opens June 30, IFC Center