Rebellion and celebration in Mali’s music

CD Anderson

 

Due to popular demand and global critical acclaim, the 2015 feature documentary They Will Have to Kill Us First, which follows exiled Malian musicians returning home to challenge artistic censorship by religious extremism in the country, is now available to watch online, exclusively through Amazon’s pay-per-view streaming service.

The specially commissioned soundtrack, with some of Mali’s legendary musical acts and rebellious upstarts, is also now officially available to buy online.

Directed by UK-based Johanna Schwartz and produced by renowned documentarian André Singer, They Will Have to Kill Us First documents the aftermath of the Islamic extremist takeover of northern Mali in 2012. The extremists enforced a strict variant of Sharia, Islamic law, banning all forms of music and music-making.

The film uses interviews with leading Malian musicians and archive material to show what happened: Radio stations were closed; instruments were burned and musicians were arrested and detained or forced into exile. They either went to the south of Mali or to neighbouring countries.

Rather than laying down their instruments, the exiles decided to fight back. The end of the documentary explores the musicians honouring their African cultural heritage and identity as they prepare for a defiant homecoming concert in Timbuktu.

Mixing traditional styles and instruments with Western genres, such as rock, funk and hip-hop, into a unique and mesmerising Malian sound, the music is a potent concoction of rebellion, celebration and affirmation.

One of the more globally renowned Malian groups is Tinariwen, an evolving collective of singers, songwriters and musicians from the nomadic Berber and Tuareg tribes, whose rich and sacred musical heritage fuses mesmeric desert guitar music over naturalistic ambiance.

Other well-known artists from Mali include the Touré musical dynasty – late father Ali Farka and son Vieux – who spread the distinctive guitar-based African folk blues sound around the globe. Kora player Toumani Diabaté cross-pollinates traditional African rhythms with diverse global pop music, including flamenco, American blues and electronica. Salif Keita, the legendary “golden voice of Africa”, made Afro-pop and world music popular in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s.

Malian hip-hop star Amkoullel, who features prominently in They Will Have to Kill Us First, combines the heady mix of political and social fervour in his French and indigenous language lyrics with skewed, modernised traditional sounds. His popular song SOS is a rallying call to young Malians to stand up for their rights in the face of corruption and extremism. Since 2012, Amkoullel has been a proponent of the anti-government, anti-extremism movement Plus jamais ça (Never again this). It calls on the Malian government to “take a stand against violence to the constitution and democracy”.

The beloved “nightingale of the north”, singer Khaira Arby, organiser of the Timbuktu concert, has been a national cultural treasure in Mali for over four decades. In the documentary, she speaks passionately about her art and the role it plays in regaining freedom in her country. “(In Mali)… it’s not life without music.”

Her music, indigenous lyrics over hypnotic desert blues, highlights gender issues in Malian society, particularly violence against women, genital mutilation and the effects of war, asking, in the poignant but groovy Goumou: “Why, in a country of beautiful women, do men go to war?”

A particular highlight of They Will Have to Kill Us First is the band Songhoy Blues, a group born in the wake of the Sharia oppression. Its four members met in exile in the south of the country. The band mixes rebellious punk rock with more traditional desert blues that, the band hopes, “recreate(s) that lost ambience of the north and make(s) all the refugees relive those northern songs”.

Discovered in 2013 by British pop singer-songwriter and record producer Damon Albarn on the streets of the Malian capital Bamako, Songhoy Blues became the first African group in more than 40 years to sign to the Atlantic record label.

They are currently one of the hippest bands on tour across the US and Europe, playing festivals such as Glastonbury, Bonnaroo and Roskilde. Songhoy Blues uses these stages to bring Mali’s story to the world in songs such asSoubour, a stomping guitar groove that mixes political commentary with an environmental message.

Other artists featured in the documentary include the desert blues duo Disco and Jimmy, guitarist Moussa Sidi and archive performances by Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen.

During the film’s first theatrical run, early in 2015, it was selected for over 20 international film festivals, including SXSW, London and Durban international film festivals. It is also one of a few documentaries that has scored a perfect 100% rating on the user-generated Rotten Tomatoes review website.

Acclaim has been positive across the board. Critics praise its honesty and emotional heft. The Austin Chronicle, reviewing the film at the SXSW festival, called it “social journalism of the highest order… also one of the most vibrantly shot and masterfully edited documentaries…”

CBS Radio said the film was both disturbing and inspiring, adding that it was “an excellent and important (film)”.

Source: They Will Have to Kill Us First

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