The takeover of northern Mali between 2012 and 2013 by radical Islamist forces got a powerful fictionalized treatment in the widely acclaimed 2014 film “Timbuktu,” directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. An issue touched on in that picture was the banning of music by the jihadists. And one of the performers in it was a real-life singer, songwriter and guitarist, Fatoumata Diawara. “Mali Blues,” a new documentary directed by Lutz Gregor, tells the real-life story of Ms. Diawara and three other major Malian musicians as they collaborate in the capital city, Bamako.
Bassekou Kouyaté plays a ngoni, a wooden instrument from which, he explains in one scene, the Western banjo was derived. He puts his instrument’s sound through a wah-wah pedal, adding a psychedelic aura to its already spiritual tone. He speaks of the griot tradition, while the younger Master Soumy embraces what he sees as the innate opposition of rap. Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg guitarist with a gorgeous fluid tone, tells of having his equipment burned and his family told by jihadists that if they caught up with him, they would cut off his fingers. In one of the movie’s most lyrical scenes, Mr. Kaedi and Ms. Diawara improvise a song together; Mr. Kaedi’s pessimistic lyrics state “We got a curse and it won’t go away” while Ms. Diawara sings of “sounds that unite.”
Despite the urgency of the situation the musicians face, when they’re not doing their work, the movie is quiet, observant, taking in the austere beauty of the land and the people. In a blink-and-you-miss-it shot, a young girl is seen crossing a dirt road, leading a younger boy with one hand and holding a machete in the other. It provokes a shudder, while the scenes in which the musicians play together elicit jubilation.