Lutz Gregor's Mali Blues examines that nation's musical spirit through the wrenching experiences of four musicians. This laggardly paced documentary may make you feel heat-dazed, but the stories of guitarist/vocalist Fatoumata Diawara, guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi of the Tuareg group Amanar, anti-Islam rapper Master Soumy, and griot Bassekou Kouyaté (the Jimi Hendrix of the ngoni) will touch you deeply. We learn that music is not merely frivolous diversion for these individuals; it is crucial to their survival, identity, and the country's cultural traditions—all of which have been threatened by the encroaching enforcement of Sharia law.
While each character's struggle is poignant, perhaps the most gripping tales are those of Ag Kaedi and Diawara. The former hails from the desert village of Kidal and relates his extreme discomfort with Bamako's urban chaos. Unfortunately, he had to move there in order to elude the radical Muslims who banned music in the nation's northern sector where he lived, destroyed his instruments, and threatened to cut off his fingers. He relates how Tuareg natives like him rarely smile, but the strife he's gone through provides essential nutrients for his deeply powerful desert blues. Diawara escaped from her home to avoid an arranged marriage and, in the film's most riveting scene, performs a song about her clitorectamy in front of an audience of women, including her mother.
Mali Blues—which doubles as a travelogue of the country's dirt roads, ramshackle dwellings, and helmetless motorbike riders—has a loose, informal feel. We casually get to know the four protagonists through their words and music and interactions with fellow musicians. They view themselves as agents for peace and preachers against intolerance, and their music—save for Master Soumy's heavy-handed hiphop—possesses a spindly, feathery quality, but it's built to last. The film's dramatic crux derives from how each musician takes inspiration from religion and views their music as extensions of it, while also battling its more oppressive manifestations.