Film Review: Mali Blues

Documentary about four Malian musicians playing for peace offers a meditative experience.
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Those who respond to foreign sights and thoughtful music played by artists at the top of their game will enjoy Mali Blues, a vibrant slip of a documentary from German director Lutz Gregor. Others might find their attention wandering.

The four artists at the heart of Mali Blues hope to promote unity and tolerance in their ravaged home country of Mali, though each approaches this mission with a different sort of artistry. There’s Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a soft-spoken guitarist and a Tuareg, one of the traditionally nomadic Berber peoples, who was forced to flee his desert home of Kidal when jihadists overran it. They burned his music equipment and told his sister they would cut off his fingers if they found him. He appears at the beginning of the film to relate his harrowing history, to talk the role of music in Islam, and to jam with pop singer and actress Fatoumata Diawara. Firebrand rapper Master Soumy and internationally renowned Griot (a much revered praise-singer) Bassekou Kouyaté round out the film’s quartet.

The musician to whom most attention seems to be paid is Diawara, an archetypal artiste in talent, aspect and experience. At 19, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and to “write my own story with my own pen.” She wears cockleshells in her hair, dances with passionate unconcern and is a self-proclaimed “psychopath” for needing music the way she does. In her songs she names outright the lovers who mistreated her; she is quietly unstinting in her criticism of genital mutilation, singing about the practice to women of her home village in one of the most penetrating scenes of the doc. Whether or not the comparatively long periods of time we spend with her were a function of convenience, or of editorial savviness on the part of the filmmakers, ultimately does not matter, because, of the group, she is the charismatic standout.

The young rapper Master Soumy appears like a licking flame to Diawara’s smoldering coals. The “lawyer of the streets” and their self-minted defender wants to change minds and incite his countrymen to action. He is an Islamist who criticizes extremists’ use of violence in the name of their religion. (“Show me your Islam,” he rap-ingly demands.) Kouyaté, whom the BBC named the 2007 Best African Artist of the Year, is the most polished and distinguished of the musicians. He is articulate and sincere when he talks of the need for peace among the country’s 300 ethnic groups, but the others, Diawara and Soumy in particular, have a rawness about them, in their personal confessions, in their biting insights, that lend to their stories an immediacy Kouyaté seems in comparison to lack.

Mali Blues is beautifully shot; drinking coffee or sitting in the shade of a building has never looked more elegant, aesthetic tableaux to complement the lulling rhythms of the musicians’ songs, and to contrast with their messages of protest. This music, whether traditional, rebellious or melancholy, and paired over long panning shots of riverbeds, children and crowds, at times lends the film a hypnotic vibe. Strangely, when one considers the foundation of instability and violence upon which its premise rests, Mali Blues very nearly works as a travelogue.

There is no single narrative thread we follow throughout the doc. We simply watch its artists play, chat and reflect. Because the cinematography, the music and the people are so strong, this approach works well for the most part. But it’s true that without the driving impetus of a goal or journey, the film lags. It never ceases to be beautiful, but its slow pacing may lose viewers. As is so often the case with documentaries hoping to make a point, Mali Blues is unlikely to interest anyone who is not already interested in its subject, in foreign peoples and sounds. For the willing, it affords some delicate pleasure.

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