REVIEW: ‘Mali Blues’ finds musicians under threat for doing what they do best

Mali Blues features Fatoumata Diawara, here pictured visiting her hometown in Mali. Photo courtesy of Konrad Waldmann.

Mali Blues, focused on the music scene in the west African nation, is one of the best documentaries of the year. The film combines expertly shot concert footage with intimate scenes depicting musicians living under difficult circumstances. The radical Islamists who have wreaked havoc in their part of the world have essentially outlawed music and dance, and this causes the relocation of several musicians who feel their art form is being threatened.

The movie doesn’t dwell on the geopolitics and terrorist networks that are behind the story. Instead, director Lutz Gregor keeps his camera trained on the musicians as they defy the authorities and make music in small communities around the country.

Throughout the 93-minute feature, a few musicians, including Fatoumata “Fatou” Diawara, Bassekou Kouyaté, Master Soumy and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, receive much of the spotlight, and it can be heartbreaking watching them practice their trade with the knowledge that their own country’s residents may never hear the tunes.

The songs they sing are political and personal, sometimes calling out the radical Islamists and other times focusing on controversial practices like female genital mutilation. Most of the music, however, is celebratory and rousing, featuring lyrics meant to inspire hope among Mali’s music lovers.

It’s appreciated that Gregor didn’t simply travel with the musicians from concert to concert. He actually takes time to focus on the communities that raised these men and women. There are many subtly effective scenes that are snapshots of street life and communities selling, buying, living and surviving. One tracking shot has the camera on a boat slowly bubbling down a river as members of a local community crowd the shores. It’s a beautifully rendered sequence that serves as a pitch-perfect transition between scenes.

After watching Mali Blues, which is playing in various cities this summer, one doesn’t learn too much about the ongoing efforts to combat terrorism in this part of the world. The politics is truly secondary to the documentary’s overall thesis. Instead, audiences will walk away with a genuine understanding of the power of music, the resiliency of musicians and the inability of anyone to stop art from being created.

Mali Blues is revelatory and revealing, and it should be experienced for its honesty and infectious musical beats.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Mali Blues (2016), directed by Lutz Gregor, is currently playing across the United States and will soon be released on DVD and VOD. Featuring Fatoumata “Fatou” Diawara, Bassekou Kouyaté, Master Soumy and Ahmed Ag Kaedi. Running time: 93 minutes. Click here for more information. Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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