Mali’s banned musicians: “They’ll have to kill us first.”


This moving new film charts the fortunes of Mali’s banned musicians – censored by the Sharia law of hardline Islamist extremists.

On August 2012, the people of Mali woke up to find that music had been banned. Radio stations, mobile phone towers and recording studios were levelled to the ground and musicians fled the country or went underground, stashing their djembes and koras away where they couldn’t be discovered.

Islamic extremists had taken power in Northern Mali and enforced a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. Musicians were hunted down and faced torture and even death. Instruments were doused in petrol and set ablaze; religious war had been declared on music.

Since ancient times music has been the heartbeat of Mali. The country is the renowned birthplace of blues, and has produced innumerable greats like Ali Farka Toure. Perhaps unlike anywhere else in the world, music is woven into the fabric of every facet of Malian life. Artists use it to pass stories and history on from one generation to the next, while it acts as the glue that binds together the varied ethnic groups within Mali.

The music ban therefore suffocated the country like it could suffocate no other. Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz found out about the ban when she was planning a trip to Mali’s famous Festival in the Desert. She couldn’t imagine the country without music and headed there to find the musicians in hiding and in exile. Their stories form the basis of the powerful new documentary film They Will Have to Kill Us First.

It follows a number of talented acts, including Khaira Arby ‘The Nightingale of the North’, male band Songhoy Blues, and Fadimata ‘Disco’ Walett Oumar, as they come to terms with their censorship.

The film is as harrowing as it is inspiring. Mali’s banned musicians show us the human side of the country’s conflict as we observe their heartbreak, fear, frustration and defiance. The various artists’ journeys take different directions, but all remain unwavering in their love for their country and its music.

Ultimately, in the face of stifling oppression music emerges as a powerful weapon for pride and unity. Artists Khaira and Disco show immense courage as they return from exile to Timbuktu to perform the first concert since the ban to prove that the Malian spirit cannot be broken. Meanwhile, Songhoy Blues travel to London to record an album that takes them from the dusty streets of Mali to the Royal Albert Hall.

The film shows that Mali’s pounding drums and melodic strings cannot be silenced. In an atmosphere of fear and brutality the country’s musical idols continue to make their instruments and voices heard to give strength and hope to its people.

The film climaxes emotionally as Disco, the real star of the show, cries out: “If you kill me I won’t be able to play anymore. But as long as I’m alive, I will do it. They will have to kill us first.”

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