Malian Musicians Fight Ban on Music in New Documentary

On the “A” w/Souleo

There’s no place like home, even when home is being run by Islamic jihadists enforcing extreme interpretations of Shariah law. Such was the surprising sentiment that director Johanna Schwartz found herself exploring while shooting the documentary, They Will Have to Kill Us First: Malian Music in Exile. The film—now in limited release—documents the lives of musicians in northern Mali who contend with a ban on all forms of music and the threat of torture or worse for anyone who isn’t obedient.   

“At some point during shooting this became a story about refugees and people fleeing hardships. But every person tried to get back home. They wanted to play with family and local musicians,”said Schwartz. “That is a twist on the narrative. You don’t hear much about who refugees are and where they want to go. But going back home became such a powerful idea that I want people to take away from this film.”

The ban on music was instituted in 2012 and officially lifted between 2013 and 2014, according to various accounts. However, for the musicians who had to hide or flee there remains a fear that extremists will once again rise in power, leaving some to operate under a self-imposed music ban. For singer Aliou Touré of Songhoy Blues (whose band is featured in the documentary), such trepidation signifies the need for further exposure and assistance on this issue.

“The Malians in the U.S. who are doing very well at some point have to bring their skills back home because they are so sorely needed,” he said.

Touré is among many other brave singers and musicians who refuse to be silenced and continue to share their music. The film’s soundtrack of blues, rap, and soul presents several commissioned songs by these recording artists, including “Petit Metier” by Songhoy Blues. Touré shared that the lyrics of the song were written while the film was being shot. For him, it represents the message of resilience as being central to rebuilding efforts.

“The title means ‘the little tasks.’ Basically we are saying that the war didn’t stop the river from flowing or the animals and the herds from going on there business. We invite everyone to realize there is much to be done without waiting for international aid and treaties or various charities. Everyone has enough to get along and reconstruct.”


The weekly column, On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.

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