Film Review: Mali Blues
Mali’s Music defines the country’s cultural identity. Situated in the heart of Western Africa, it is often regarded as the cradle of today’s Blues and Jazz.
In Review

Mali Blues

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars - 'Smashing'
Directed by Lutz Gregor
Starring Fatoumata Diawara, Ahmed Ag Kaedi, Bassékou Kouyaté
1h 30min, Documentary, Music, 2016, Germany
Review by Jeanne Powell

A standout film at the Mendocino Film Festival was the documentary Mali Blues from Lutz Gregor, a 2016 German release.

Featuring rising pop singer Fatoumata Diawara (“Fatou”), the film focuses on reactions of musicians when Islamic fundamentalists in northern Mali place a ban on popular music. This nation has a rich musical heritage involving performers from a variety of ethnic and religious groups – Christian, Muslim and pre-Christian, desert dwellers and city folk; and they come together to support the continuation of that heritage.

Regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation, the musicians of Mali are united in their love of music and their awareness of the importance of preserving this cultural heritage.

Three years or so after the above political event, Fatou decides to return to Mali, reconnect with her family and local musicians, and participate in an open-air concert in southern Mali. Lutz Gregor’s cameras follow her as she returns from a self-imposed exile and begins her journey home. Also interviewed extensively are a Tuareg musician Ahmed Ag Kaedi from the north; a brilliant young rapper, Master Soumy; and griot Bassekou Kouyate.

In the north of Mali is desert; further south are cattle-raising nomads. The majority of the population lives in the savannah region in the south – Songhai, Malinke, Senoufou, Dogon and the Bambara people. Southern Mali appears in long panoramic scenes, showing us the incredible diversity of cultures living side by side in Bamako, with farmers markets, women walking with baskets balanced on their heads, people and cargoes traveling on the Niger River in sturdy long canoes, as well as lots and lots of motorbikes filling the streets. Everyone is outside at night walking, talking, enjoying music in the clubs. Teens play soccer on a dusty field at twilight
The Tuareg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi is from Kidal in the desert. For him, being in the southern city of Bamako amounts to exile. There is too much pollution; there is too much noise; there are too many people. He longs for the quiet of his desert home, but he no longer feels safe there with the new edicts about music and with the proliferation of guns. Now he practices with his guitar in his bare room, on the river, in a plaza.

When Fatou enters the city of Bamako for the first time in years, she experiences some trepidation because she does not know if her family will accept her back. But she need not have worried. She plays the guitar and composes music as she prepares for the concert. Lovingly she strings her guitar and speaks of what it means to her. This guitar built her house, she says.

Fatou travels by bus to a distant village, the home of her ancestors. At rest stops, local vendors offer the thirsty travelers hardboiled eggs and plastic bags of water. She enters the village with hesitation, but is surrounded immediately by love. The female elders greet her with song and embraces; a daughter has returned.

One of the most powerful moments in this film occurs when the women assemble for a concert by Fatou and she tells her story to three generations of village women in beautiful songs – the clitoral circumcision she experienced at puberty, which brought her great pain, and her decision to leave rather than marry a man she did not love. Her songs bring forth a powerful discussion of whether this practice of clitoral circumcision should be abandoned.

Master Soumy is young, intense and talented. He observes, listens and then composes infectious rap songs which address issues directly, such as “Explain Your Islam.”

“Kalashnikovs and bombs, explain your Islam.
Murder and torture, explain your Islam.
Before you forbid me laughing, explain your Islam.”

In discussion Soumy points out the difference between a griot (traditional musician and historian) and a rapper. The rapper does not praise; he attacks society’s ills. To quote griot Bassekou Kouyate, the griots are masters of the word, keepers of tradition, and have been for centuries. He plays the ngoni, a traditional string instrument.

IN PHOTOS: ‘Mali Blues’ Documentary

Film Review: Mali Blues
At the age of 20, Fatoumata Diawara fled her home country Mali, escaping an arranged marriage. She then lived abroad, following an internationally successful career and preparing now for her first concert in Mali. (Photo: Phil Sharp)
Film Review: Mali Blues
Ahmed Ag Kaedi and his band Amanar play the famous song „Desert Blues“, a modern version of traditional Tuareg music. Currently the musicians live in exile, expelled by the Islamist from their homes in the desert. (Photo: Konrad Waldmann)
Mali Blues - Documentary
To reduce tensions in the multi-ethnic state Mali famous Ngoni player and traditional Griot Bassekou Kouyaté has put together a band project with musicians from four different ethnic groups. They want to show: If we can make music together, we can live together. (Photo: John Bosch)
Mali Blues - Documentary
Rapper Master Soumy is the voice of the people in the slums of Bamako. Especially for young generations he is an idol as a critical musician. (Photo: Konrad Waldmann)
Mali Blues - Documentary
Fatou is welcomed to her ancestral village by an elder. (Photo: Konrad Waldmann)
Mali Blues - Documentary
Fatoumata Diawara sings for the women of her home village about female genital mutilation – a ritual, that is still practiced in Mali. (Photo: Konrad Waldmann)
Director Lutz Gregor - Mali Blues documentary review
Director Lutz Gregor.

There is a hopeful moment when men and women line up to enter a mosque. Due to the politics of the times, worshipers are put through a metal detector and lightly frisked. Inside are uniformed guards because a great Muslim teacher is present, and all hang on his answers to their questions.

The musicians first ask permission for the whites to be present to make their documentary. The teacher gives permission for the filming to continue. He says the Koran does not forbid music, but points out that all concerts are not the same.

Regardless of ethnic origin or religious affiliation, the musicians of Mali are united in their love of music and their awareness of the importance of preserving this cultural heritage. Scenes from the 2015 concert on the river frame the documentary. The message from the musicians is clear, and is shared enthusiastically by attendees at the concert, dancing on the shore and in the river water.

“God gives us voices so we can be joyful and celebrate.”
“Unity is strong when Africans embrace each other.”
“We need music.”
“One people, one goal, one faith – Mali.”
“Now we will sing for peace, only peace.”

The beautiful young singer, Fatoumata, is delighted to participate in this historic concert, and strengthens her loving connection to her audience and her culture as she performs. Director Lutz Gregor allows the musicians to speak for themselves in this bittersweet film. Highly recommended.

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.