Critics' Pick

Mali Blues (NR)

Documentary 90 min. August 11, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
The steady, stinging pluck of Bassekou Kouyaté's ngoni, the traditional, lute-like African stringed instrument, suggests dust hitting your face on a Sahel wind at dusk, when the day at last starts to cool. An innovator within his tradition, Kouyaté has rigged his ngoni's cowskin body with pickups and a wah-wah pedal, tingeing that wind with psychedelia, with distortion and drone, an electric blast from the Niger Delta. In his playing the meditative meets the rhapsodic, the ancient ways edge toward the Western pop that long ago grew out of them. Tragically, senselessly, rather than being officially celebrated in his homeland, Kouyaté, like all the great Malian musicians featured in this doc, finds himself unable to play in large portions of it. Fundamentalist Islam has spread, and with it a Sharia injunction against secular music and dance.

Lutz Gregor's film, as beautiful in its photography as the desert blues Kouyaté plays, tracks four Malian musicians in the weeks before 2015's Festival of the Niger in Southern Mali. There, the great world-pop singer Fatoumata Fatou Diawara will for the first time sing in the country of her birth. Before that marvel of a performance, Diawara will travel the country, despairing and defiant: In a village, before an audience of a dozen women, she sings a vigorous plea of a ballad exhorting them not to mutilate their daughters in the name of circumcision. First-time feature director Gregor never imposes a narrative arc on his subjects; instead, we meet them, hear their hopes and their fears, and then savor performances of singular beauty, power and invention.
Lutz Gregor Fatoumata Diawara, Ahmed Ag Kaedi, Bassékou Kouyaté, Master Soumy Christian Beetz Icarus Films

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