Music has to be Mali’s foremost cultural export. Artists such as Oumou Sangare, Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, and Salif Keita to name a few have fans across the world. Traditional Malian music is enduring and remains popular within the country even today. When Muslim extremists took over parts of Northern Mali in 2012, the musicians who managed to escape south to Bamako were among the first to reveal that this heritage was being threatened.

 

Music is not only a means of communication in Mali, where as in other parts of West Africa that are traditionally Muslim, it is entwined with religion. In direct opposition to this, the extremist versions of sharia law involved banning music. Not satisfied with simply outlawing music, these extremists broke instruments, threatened musicians, and even took issue with ringtones.

 

The tenacious story of Malian musicians who held on to their music in spite of the extremists is now playing across theaters in cities across the United States. “They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile” is a feature-length documentary that follows a group of Malian musicians and tells their courageous story in the face of extremism. Released by BBC Worldwide North America and directed by Johanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First” features musicians from Northern Mali such as Songhoy Blues, Khaira Arby and Moussa Sidi, and Fadimata “Disco” Walet Oumar.

 

That these musicians stood up and did not let extremism or displacement put them down is an amazing feat in itself, and the stories told in the documentary are varied. There is Songhoy Blues, a group that was formed in exile as a direct result of extremist attacks and performs in response to the conflict with which Mali is still struggling. Veteran musicians are also represented with Kharia Arby, whose home was raided by extremists and life threatened.

 

Are you a fan of Malian music? Will you be going to see “They Will Have to Kill Us First”? Let us know by leaving a comment below or by reaching me on Twitter @rafeeeeta