'Mali Blues': Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
An inspiring musical journey.

Lutz Gregor's documentary follows four African musicians as they prepare for a concert in their country, which has become increasingly subject to Sharia law.

“We are sick, we are psychopaths, we need music,” declares Fatoumata Diawara, one of the subjects of Lutz Gregor’s impressionistic documentary about four renowned Malian musicians struggling with the country’s radical Islamic elements. Combining wonderful concert footage with moving portraits of artists determined to make music no matter what the risk, Mali Blues should appeal both to world music fans and anyone interested in the increasing tensions between secular and religious forces in Africa.

With much of Mali’s northern region having been taken over in the last decade by radical Islamists intent on enforcing Sharian law, the country’s musicians were forced either to flee across borders or move south. Centering on a 2015 music festival held on the banks of the Niger River in the capital city of Bamako, the film profiles four of the participating performers. It also serves as a vivid reminder that so much of American music, particularly jazz and blues, owes to African influences.

The musicians are Diawara, a singer/guitarist who may be familiar to moviegoers thanks to her role in Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed 2014 drama Timbuktu, which dealt with similar themes; Bassekou Kouyate, a Grammy-nominated musician and griot who plays the ngoni, a traditional string instrument which he explains was a precursor to the banjo and has been rigged up to produce a psychedelic sound; Master Soumy, a rapper whose politically charged lyrics directly comment on the fundamentalists’ distortion of Islam (“Murder and torture/Explain your Islam/Before you forbid me laughing/Explain your Islam”); and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a guitar virtuoso who had his equipment destroyed by Islamists when they took over his hometown and threatened to cut off his fingers should he resume playing.

The director deftly interweaves his impressionistic depiction of the country’s natural beauty and its people with musical segments; interviews with the four impassioned musicians; and such dramatic moments as when Diawara, after playing a song about her own genital mutilation, engages in a spirited discussion with several older village women, some of whom defend the practice. We also learn that the singer/songwriter had fled the country years earlier to avoid an arranged marriage and is only now performing professionally in her native home for the first time.

Mali Blues at times proves repetitive and too languorous in its pacing. But at its best the film delivers a gorgeous paean to the liberating effects of music and the joy it can bring even to people faced with violent repression in the name of religion.

Production: Gebruder Beetz Filmproduktion, ZDF, ARTE
Distributor: Icarus Films
Director: Greg Gregor
Producer: Kerstin Meyer-Beetz
Executive producer: Christian Beetz
Director of photography: Axel Schneppat
Editors: Markus Schmidt, Michelle Barbin

93 minutes