From German director Lutz Gregor (Das Land der Dogon – Eine Welt in Gefahr) comes Mali Blues, a new documentary that explores Mali’s rich musical culture in the wake of a fundamental Islamic leadership. The film follows Fatoumata Diawara, a rising pop star; Bassekou Kouyaté, a ngoni player and traditional griot; Master Soumy, a street rapper; and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg band leader.
Mali, the eighth-largest country in Africa, has a strong and varied musical tradition. From early Malian hunting societies sprang string instruments such as the bolon and the simbi or donsongoni. Hunters would use these instruments to accompany themselves as they sang songs of their brave deeds. Eventually, the music grew into the hereditary griot tradition, still strong today. Mali is often considered the birthplace of contemporary blues and jazz music because of the influence it has had on those genres. As Kouyaté says, “Everyone knows the blues is originally from here.”
This ancient cultural heritage was put in danger during the 2012-13 period of fundamentalist Islamic rule. The strict form of Sharia law implemented during that time put harsh limits on musical and cultural expression. During the battle of Gao, several World Heritage Sites were destroyed. In some regions, music was completely banned, musicians were threatened and tortured, and instruments were burned in the streets. An article from The Guardian at that time reports that, “Smokers, alcohol drinkers and women who are not properly attired are being publicly whipped.” Most musicians, like Ahmed Ag Kaedi, were forced to flee the north for their own safety.
Although the extremists have since retreated in the face of U.N. intervention, the fear they inspired remains. Now, Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyaté, Master Soumy, Ahmed Ag Kaedi and other musicians must use their talents to champion freedom and tolerance in Mali. Some, especially Master Soumy, use music as a form of protest to criticize the oppressive regime. Diawara acknowledges the healing power of music, saying “C’est comme une hôpitale, la musique.” [“Music is like a hospital.”]
Mali Blues, which premiered last week at the Visions du Réel film festival in Nyon, Switzerland, will be shown at film festivals across Europe before its German cinema release in September 2016. A schedule of screenings can be found here. Watch the trailer here: