Review by Clare McGrane, DJ assistant for Wo'Pop on KEXP
Fatoumata Diawara doesn’t look like a woman who thought her life was over just a few years ago. She’s a rising star on the world stage, constantly beaming as she performs, draped in the vibrant colors and textures of her homeland: Mali.
The country is home to a rich and ancient musical culture and is the homeland of Blues music. But in 2012, extremist groups clashed with the Malian government, eventually taking over the Northern region of the country and banning listening to or performing music of any kind, among other things that they see as unholy. Musicians like Diawara were forced to flee, and even in other places of the country, they felt unsafe and unsure of performing.
“It felt like the world would stop turning,” Diawara says in Mali Blues, a documentary by German director Lutz Gregor that follows four Malian musicians as they confront the change in their country and work to ward off hate and intolerance. The film is showing at the SIFF Film Center for a very special weekend engagement, screening Friday, July 28th through Sunday, July 30th.
It’s a stunning portrait of the lives and music of the Malian people, from Diawara’s tradition-tinged pop to the in-your-face revolt of street rapper Master Soumy. And like their country, the musicians and their work are complex, entrancing and deeply beautiful.
Diawara is a ray of sunshine in the film. She’s realistic about the challenges that Mali faces, particularly the new generation that is beginning to come to age. Her songs lament the still common tradition of female genital mutilation and speak out against forcing girls to marry at young ages, filling a niche somewhere between Blues, philosophy, and pop. But through those struggles, Diawara carries a confident, fierce optimism that change is in their hands, and that music can help spark it.
Ahmed Ag Kaedi, on the other hand, is a melancholy figure. His hands are constantly moving: making strong tea, strumming the guitar that never seems out of arm’s reach, and fiddling with an ever-present cigarette. He is a renowned guitarist and leader of the Tuareg musical group Amanar. He was forced to leave his hometown in the lower reaches of the Sahara, the home to all of the traditionally nomadic Tuareg peoples, under threat from extremists who took over the region. In the film — shot in Mali’s capital city, Bamako — he constantly pines for the desert, the quiet stillness he finds there, and the music that seems to seep from the sand.
Bassekou Kouyaté likewise comes from traditional cloth. He’s a master of the ngoni, a traditional Malian stringed instrument, but with a twist — he’s added an amplifier and effects pedal to give his music more range and depth. Kouyaté is also a man with a plan. He’s uniting artists to speak out against extremism and hatred and bring music back to the people.
Master Soumy thrives on Bamako’s urban setting. He’s an up-and-coming street artist, getting well known for his street shows and YouTube videos. While Diawara, Kaedi, and Kouyaté retain their Blues roots, Soumy is taking a leaf from the hip-hop book with his rap career.
It’s a truth felt around the world that art is political, but there’s a special urgency and sharpness to the political messages of Mali’s music. Soumy takes that even further. He’s unabashed in his criticism of government corruption and violent extremism that has found a home in parts of the country.
The film doesn’t pose a question or give us an answer. The musicians don’t give us a unified face of Mali or symbolize of the country’s struggle, nor should they. Instead, we see through their eyes a country full of love, conflict, beauty, and pain — a country reinventing itself through music, as it has for generations.
More music from Mali, and all over the world, can be heard every Tuesday night with Wo'Pop on KEXP, hosted by DJ Darek Mazzone, from 6:00 to 9:00 PM PT.
KEXP listeners know: we love The Clash. We love them so much, we declared February 7th to be International Clash Day, a holiday not only to celebrate their influential punk rock sound but to acknowledge the band's activism and political messaging.