Words by Yoram Allon
Dir: Johanna Schwartz; Together Films
‘Music is our life, our oxygen’
Johanna Schwartz’s debut feature intelligently captures the complexity and emotion of the life of Malian musicians forced into exile and desperate to keep their music alive. It charts the paths of these artists after Islamic jihadists manipulated military and political disorder in the country’s north, following the 2012 Touareg rebellion, to overtake central cities such as Timbuktu and Gao and impose strict sharia law. Draconian measures included a total ban on music, with radio stations being destroyed, and musicians tortured and killed.
Tens of thousands fled south, or to neighbouring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. That refugee population included a great many musicians, including Khaira Arby (pictured above), a much-loved singer; Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walett Oumar, lead singer of Touareg group Tartit; an itinerant guitarist Moussa Sidi; and the much-heralded Songhoy Blues, who first appear onscreen riding scooters and carrying rifle-slung guitars like some gang from a West African Quadrophenia. The film effectively presents their struggle, contextualised within the story of the uprising of the Touareg separatists and the political machinations of contemporary Mali.
Although the film follows a fairly conventional format in focusing on specific protagonists as they negotiate different paths of sustenance and return, it is an effectively told narrative, interspersing different kinds of footage – from archival shots of military activity and rare shots of the jihadists themselves to contemporaneous news reports. Indeed, the film is most successful in evoking a visceral sense of events unfolding in real time, as we follow Khaira and Disco in their attempt to stage a concert in Timbuktu, a particularly dangerous enterprise that involved announcing the gig via local radio on the day of its performance; this incredible event allowed music to be heard and enjoyed for the first time in over three years.
The film is equally powerful in following the development of Songhoy Blues, from jamming by the banks of the River Niger at dusk to their arrival in London to record their album Music in Exile, produced by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner (who also provides a fantastic score for the film), and to play at the Royal Albert Hall. And it is the scenes of the young men, hearing the finished mix of their album for the first time, that really capture the enormity of their journey, and the potential power of their music to keep the spirit of Mali alive.
They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile is in cinemas in the UK from October 23