Songhoy Blues has the blues.
(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz
Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.
The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.
All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.
Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.
Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.
The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.
But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.
The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.
Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.
REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years