What happens when music is outlawed?
That’s not the plot to a new young-adult novel but what really happened in the nation of Mali a few years ago. Islamic jihadists seized control over the northern parts of the country and promptly banned all music.
The resulting fallout of escape and resistance is chronicled brilliantly in They Will Have to Kill Us First, a documentary that is as powerful as it is timely.
For years, fans of African music have held a special place in their hearts for Mali, a country with a long, celebrated musical history that has birthed a hypnotic, guitar-driven style with a striking resemblance to American blues.
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Not only has the far-flung nation on the edge of the Sahara produced a handful of world-music stars (the late Ali Farka Toure, his son Vieux Farka Toure, the duo of Amadou & Mariam, the Tuareg “jam band” Tinariwen), but it once hosted the huge Festival in the Desert, an annual celebration of African rhythms that attracted names like Robert Plant.
But that adulation means little to the musicians profiled in Johanna Schwartz’s compelling portrait of artistic life during wartime. While their styles vary — ranging from the “desert punk” of rockers Songhoy Blues (who have big-time connections through Brian Eno and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner) to the traditionalism of legendary Khaira Arby (who’s an activist as well as a singer) — the musicians all have one thing in common: refusal to knuckle under to the new authority.
They Will Have to Kill Us First isn’t just fueled by righteous indignation, though. Schwartz and her cinematographer, Karelle Walker, offer some absolutely dazzling imagery (as when Songhoy Blues are playing music at sunset) that captures both the desert’s shimmering splendor and its political horror.
Much like the transporting 2014 Oscar-nominated narrative film Timbuktu, which dealt with the same topic, They Will Have to Kill Us First is both bracing and beautiful.
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They Will Have to Kill Us First
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Johanna Schwartz
Cast: Khaira Arby, Nick Zinner, Songhoy Blues
Rated: Unrated (war violence)
Running time: 105 min.