BWW Review--They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

A vivid, intimate and at times graphic tale, They Will Have To Kill Us First... is in the larger picture a history lesson of Mali, and the conflicts that plunged the nation into civil war. Featured at SxSW in March, the story is told through the eyes, words and music of its artists, forced to flee from cities such as Timbuktu.BWW Review--They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

The Northern Mali Conflict is one of the several names given the civil war which broke out in 2012 as insurgent groups launched attacks against government forces. The aim was autonomy for the Tuareg people of the region and became known under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The fighting saw the overthrow of Mali's president, and the MNLA, backed by several Islamist organizations (including a splinter group of Al-Qaeda) took control of the northern portion of the county. Swept up in the advance were the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. The groups soon began fighting amongst themselves, and the Islamists seized control and enacted Sharia Law.

Of the thousands that fled the rebels were musicians of traditional and popular styles, a prime target of Islamists. The playing and broadcasting of music was banned; deprived of livelihood and in fear for their lives, many, legends in their homeland and others, joined in the exodus south to Mali's capital, Bamako, and also to neighboring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

They Will Have To Kill Us First... is sharp in its camera work and production. Panoramic views of the deserts and colorful urban areas show a rough and at times, primitive life, and the damage wreaked upon cities like Timbuktu in the wake of the conflict.

Interspersed throughout are news reports, plus graphic footage of the Islamists exacting "justice." The cutting off of hands and beatings are shown, beware; yet they only tell part of the story. With the military, the law is discretionary, and a uniform is a license to act with impunity.

Watching the up close interviews and words of the displaced, those involved from the heart, and to the point.

"All I want is music...if I can't sing, I don't exist anymore." - Fadimata Walett Oumar, aka Disco

BWW Review--They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

Using a nickname she earned in the 1980's, Disco spent time a refugee in a camp in Burkina Faso. She succinctly describes one part of Islam in a way western media will not, or does not take the time to.

"Being Muslim is something in your heart," she explains. "If a woman wants to cover herself (demonstrating the facial cover), if she really wants to do it, that's fine. But if she is forced, no way."

For Khaira Arby, a performer known as the "Queen of Desert Blues," she shows her strength in speaking, but also the heartache she feels for herself but also her people.

Her recollections of Timbuktu, interspersed with images of buildings, religious sites and the famous mausoleums destroyed by artillery but also the hands of Islamists.

"If you ban music in Mali, or in the whole world, it's like cutting people's oxygen off. Because music is like oxygen for human beings." - Khaira Arby

BWW Review--They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile

The documentary moves at a speed that does not take away from the tragedy. Projects to support the musicians, but also the displaced pulled in numerous lights of the western world, including Brian Eno and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The universal language of music is viewed and seen through jam sessions and auditions for a benefit recording. When the performers can again take the stage in exile, their joy returns to the full.

Through the chaos came the chance to bring their music and message forth. The story is primarily told through a series of musicians and singers, including Songhoy Blues, a four-piece band rooted in traditional sounds and western blues. Music in Exile, the album they recorded while uprooted is an exceptional collection of those above influences, plus the defiance of those who would not stay silent.

The political process is also followed and documented. Grievances are elucidated and aired, but the MNLA reconciled with the Malian government in 2013. Malian, French and eventually multi-national forces regained control of much of the country. A peace agreement was signed in June 2015, but sporadic clashes with Islamists continue, and the relationships between the varied factions remain tenuous.

To Khaira, the mission of music is to keep the nation together. "We are the walls of this house," Khaira declared, "this is our job."

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From This Author Tory Gates

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