‘Our Guitars Are Our Kalashnikovs’: The Musicians Who Helped Save Mali

A new documentary follows a group of musicians who continue to sing and play their instruments in Mali after jihadis implemented sharia law and banned music.

They Will Have To Kill Us First - Songhoy Blues

In 2012, Mali was in turmoil. Tuareg separatists disenfranchised by the country’s central government had joined forces with Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda and took control of cities in the north, forcing tens of thousands of Malians to flee their hometowns in and around the ancient cities of Gao and Timbuktu.

Music, one of Mali’s oldest forms of storytelling, was banned, and those who stayed and continued to play it were subject to a harsh version of sharia law. Radio stations were burned down, instruments were destroyed, and musicians were forced to flee or face persecution and even death.

But safe in Bamako, the capital, those who escaped from violence in the north saw music as a way to fight back against the jihadis who displaced them. Songhoy Blues, a group of four young men who only began to play music together once in exile in the capital, saw their guitars as tools for peace. “The rebels, they have their Kalashnikovs,” one of them says in They Will Have to Kill Us First, a new documentary about Malian musicians who fled the conflict. “For us, our guitars are our Kalashnikovs.”

Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz, who directed the documentary, was living in London when the conflict began, but had listened to and admired the power of traditional Tuareg music for more than a decade. So when she heard musicians were being forced to flee, she bought a plane ticket to Bamako.

“I couldn’t not do it. I couldn’t shake the story,” she told Foreign Policy in a phone interview from London. “I had the idea, and I had to do it.”

On her first night in Mali, Schwartz’s guide mentioned a family friend who could help. That friend turned out to be Khaira Arby, one of Mali’s most famous singers and one whose lyrics have for decades pushed for social and political change. Ultimately, Arby would become one of the four main subjects of Schwartz’s film.

“It was that one moment where you think, ‘OK, this is going to be quite a good thing, and the ball has started off rolling in quite the right direction,’” Schwartz said.

From there, planning for the documentary took off. Through what Schwartz called “six degrees of separation,” she managed to get in touch with Andy Morgan, a writer and journalist and onetime manager of Tinariwen, arguably the most influential and well-known group in Tuareg music history.

Morgan introduced Schwartz to a cohort of singers, drummers, and guitarists who would later join Arby in becoming the other stars of the film.

The documentary, which premiered at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin this year and will hit American theaters next spring, is a deep dive into a war that was not only about politics but also about culture. It dissects the impact conflict and extremism can have on storytelling and art.

Schwartz also captures the shared human experiences of war and exile and the overwhelming desire each character has to go back home.

Homesickness, Schwartz said, was the most important notion she had to convey. That sense of perpetual homesickness is at the heart of the genre of music Tuaregs sing, which they describe as the sounds of nostalgia. Today, as the world faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, she hopes those who see asylum-seekers as migrants looking to steal jobs and infiltrate European communities will think twice after watching her film.

“They’re all in exile, and they spend the entire film trying to go home,” she said. “That’s a really strong message. Home is a very powerful concept for every person on the planet. We all have feelings about our home, and why should the musicians in Mali feel any differently?”

The nearly two-hour movie also manages to follow the complicated web of relationships that — in a way that even Schwartz could not have predicted — tie these musicians to each other and to the conflict itself.

Schwartz had no idea, for example, that one female singer named Disco, who is featured in the film, was married to a Tuareg revolutionary who would go on to play a key role in the peace negotiations in Algeria.

And there was no way to predict that by the end of the film, Songhoy Blues would have signed a record deal with Transgressive Records. That happened with help from Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an American rock band, who discovered Songhoy Blues through the Africa Express project, which encourages collaboration between African musicians.

That development brought the filmmakers back to London, where Songhoy Blues recorded their first album, Music in Exile, which was released in 2015.

It is that trip in the film that best gets at the musicians’ intense desire to return home to Mali’s north. As the band members watch London landmarks speed past them through the window of a car, they admit to each other that despite the war, they would rather be at home.

One of their most obviously political songs — “Petit Métier” — describes the responsibility villagers have to return home and rebuild after the war.

“After the war, in my village, each one does his little job,” one of the band members sings in French. Darkly, in the background, the others join in: “Yes, it’s true,” they sing. “Each one does his little job.”

All of the musicians in the film share that same sense of duty to save their country and publicize their plight. For Arby and Disco, that translated to bringing a concert to Timbuktu for the first time since the conflict began in 2012.

When Schwartz learned of Arby’s plan, she knew that if the concert happened, it would serve as the ending of the film.

But up until the last minute, it wasn’t clear if the concert would end in a disastrous attack or become a moment of reconciliation for communities scarred by the extremist violence that had only recently been beaten back with the help of French forces.

“It’s a slightly hard thing to explain: When you’re working and filming, you don’t have a lot of time to consider how you feel yourself about the situation,” Schwartz said.

The concert was held without incident, and when Arby and Disco took the stage, the film again captured their sense of urgency to return home from Bamako and settle down in the communities they were forced to flee.

“What we were looking for was characters who weren’t just musicians on the run, but who had a connection to the conflict,” Schwartz said. “These were really interesting characters who were interesting in their own light. But their personal connection to the conflict gave their stories another layer.”

Photo credit: They Will Have to Kill Us First

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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