It’s pretty much consensus that Mali is one of the world’s great musical capitals. Stretching from the southern Sahara into the plains of the Sahel in West Africa, this nation of 14.5 million people may not be the strongest economically speaking—its GDP per capita was only $715 in 2013—but it has a rich musical heritage that goes back centuries, and its Grammy winners and international touring artists would be familiar to any summer festival attendee or NPR listener: Vieux Farka Touré. Amadou & Mariam. Tinariwen.
Mali’s is a valuable source of income and cultural capital. It’s woven into everyday life and its impact reaches across the Atlantic. Over the years, scholars have looked into the ways that musical forms emerging in the region and other parts of West Africa have overlapped with and been informed by Delta blues. As for contemporary Tuareg guitarists like the members of Tinariwen, they’ve always been vocal about their love for modern rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits.
It makes sense, then, why journalists and filmmakers in the States have been paying more attention than usual to Mali lately. In recent years, the country has endured major political upheaval and violence. In 2012, a Tuareg separatist group took over the northern part of the country in an effort to establish its own independent state. The rebellion was the latest in a series of insurgencies mounted by the Tuareg people—a semi-nomadic group that makes its home in the Sahara, who have long fought for rights and representation. Yet the rebellion was soon co-opted by Al-Qaeda-style jihadi militants, who rolled into desert cities like Gao, Kidal, and Timbuktu and imposed a brutal interpretation of sharia law.
Video games, alcohol, and soccer were banished. Women were ordered to cover themselves, even forced to wear ridiculous gloves in public. And music was violently banned—radio stations ransacked, cassettes destroyed, guitars and amplifiers torched, and famous musicians threatened with major bodily harm. Khaira Arby, a celebrated singer from Timbuktu who is one of the stars of Johanna Schwartz’s new documentary, They Will Have to Kill Us First, had to flee her hometown after militants told her they’d cut out her tongue.
They Will Have to Kill Us First highlights the struggles that Arby and other musicians from northern Mali went through after they had to flee their homes amid the crackdown. Filmed in Timbuktu and Gao and in the Malian capital of Bamako and in Ouagadougou, a city in Burkina Faso, the film captures the artists at their most vulnerable. They muse on the politics tearing their country in half and they use their songs to cope with the pain of displacement.
Militant Islam has been circulating in remote parts of the Sahara Desert for years, and the takeover of northern Mali was just one of many attacks and incursions that have gone down. But the MNLA-led rebellion that initially started in 2012 was about Tuareg rights, not dreams of caliphates or arbitrary bans. Schwartz, in some parts of the film, makes an effort at underscoring the nuance of the issues. One artist she interviews is a Tuareg guitarist who’s sympathetic to the MNLA cause. He says he didn’t have a problem with the sharia law even as he had to hide away his instruments. Another interview subject is the husband of veteran Tuareg musician Fadimata Walet Oumar, leader of the band Tartit. A leader of the MNLA, he goes by the name “Jimmy” and insists that despite the jihadi involvement, the group’s push towards sovereignty had broad-based support in the north.
Like most American—and European—produced examinations of African music, Kill Us First resorts to the usual clichés and heartwarming narratives. Just consider the story of Sahara rockers Songhoy Blues, a band of exiles from the north who get the opportunity of a lifetime when they start working with a charitable group of Western musical heavyweights. The first time they ever step into a recording studio, they do it to cut an album with a fedora-clad Nick Zinner (who also make this movie’s soundtrack). When they go on their first UK tour, they’re greeted by wildly receptive audiences and play a big show with Damon Albarn. Their music is genuinely good: a burst of raw guitar grooves with distorted amps and deep grooves. But their story also seems pre-packaged—a charity case for Westerners to swoon over, like talking about the Great Recession by way of a home makeover show.
More poignant are the scenes with Arby. Her strident voice is one you could recognize from a mile away, yet her frustration and homesickness is palpable as she languishes in Bamako. She describes the jihadi music ban as “like cutting peoples’ oxygen off.” When Timbuktu is finally liberated by French troops, she organizes a big homecoming concert. It’s a blast, with cheering crowds and supple Afropop guitar licks aplenty. Yet even as it comes together, Arby worries about the future. And this happy ending is undercut by a note at the end, pointing out that violence still persists in some parts of Mali. Indeed, it seems West African militants claiming Islam have stepped up their attacks in recent months, staging bloody sieges on hotels and resorts in Bamako, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast.
The most frustrating part about Schwartz’s movie is that it renders these jihadists as nameless, faceless “extremists.” Schwartz makes no effort at explaining who these people are or why they wanted to ban music in the north to begin with. Anyone who follows militancy of this stripe could guess the simple answer—that the strictest interpretations of Islam consider music to be “haram,” or forbidden. But you have to wonder what was really going through these guys’ heads if you consider that Mali is not only a place where music is a precious cultural resource, but is also home to a predominantly Muslim population.
Was this music ban just an act of hubris and fanaticism, or was there a more calculated message they wanted to send? As militants across the globe have added musicians and concertgoers to their list of targets, these questions of why feel more urgent than ever.