They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile
D. Johanna Schwartz
It’s hard to imagine a world without music. A world where melodies are forbidden, radios are silenced, and instruments are hidden away or destroyed. For most of us, music is such an intrinsic part of our existence that the possibility of it no longer being in our lives is difficult to comprehend. When extremist groups took hold of northern Mali in 2012, a ban on all forms of music was implemented throughout the captured areas. For the people of Mali, a world without music had suddenly and violently been forced upon them.
They Will Have to Kill Us First documents the lives of four Malian musical acts as they fight to continue playing the music that they love after fleeing the violence of their homeland. For three years, director Johanna Schwartz travelled back and forth between west Africa and the UK, capturing the escalation of the Malian conflict through the eyes of some of the country’s most talented and celebrated artists. From the exiled locations of Burkina Faso, southern Mali and London, they provide us with a unique and personal account of a conflict that we in Australia rarely hear anything about.
While the film does an admirable job of explaining the conflict’s key events and players, it does not attempt any detailed analysis. Doing so would require far more time than is available in a single documentary and, more importantly, would take some of the precious screen time away from the film’s central characters.
Charismatic and natural in front of the camera, the musicians are a joy to watch. They speak openly about the fear and guilt of living in exile while their friends and families remain in danger. In a particularly poignant moment, the members of the ensemble Songhoy Blues reflect on the bittersweet nature of the band’s increasing success. Having landed their very first album deal, they embark on a UK tour, moving from hotel to hotel and playing to increasingly bigger crowds. While they might appear to be living every musician’s dream, their ability to enjoy the experience is clouded by a deep and pervasive longing for Mali and the people that remain there. As opportunities continue to open up for them and the world begins to fall in love with their music, they are faced with a cruel reality: the one place where they really wish to play is the one place that they are unable to go.
Fittingly, the film is most powerful when it allows the musicians to do what they do best. Their performances bring a kind of electricity that is not quite there when they are speaking to the camera, despite their endearing charm. They are musicians, first and foremost, and the politically charged messages of their songs share more about them and their country than would be possible in a thousand hours of interview footage. When the singer ‘Disco’ (Fadimata Walet Oumar) breaks into song in a Burkina Faso refugee camp, the somber, reserved faces of the women around her quickly break into smiles. Soon, they are all singing along, moving intuitively to the rhythm of her voice and connecting their bodies with her words and their message.
It is a shame then that scenes like this do not feature more in the film. Performances are rarely presented for long, and are often cut short or combined with other scenes. Thankfully, for those of us who want the music to play on, a soundtrack for the film has recently been released.
In a way, this film is an ode to the people who continue to perform their craft when everything around them is telling them not to. By choosing to run into a war zone when others were running out, the filmmakers faced their own security challenges in the pursuit of a creative endeavor. The Malian crew members took on a particular degree of risk, taking their cameras to the areas of the country that their western counterparts did not dare to go.
How fortunate we are that these people exist, these artists, musicians and filmmakers who keep creating in the toughest of environments. It is because of them that we are able to hear their stories, enjoy their music and understand a little more about a country we otherwise might not have heard of. It might not always succeed, but They Will Have to Kill Us First has opened the door for us to learn more about the country of Mali, the people within it, the violence that they face and, of course, the incredible music that they create.