Johanna Schwartz’s music documentary opens with an explanatory text and French-language rap. These say that since 1963 the nomadic people of the Sahara, the Touaregs, have been fighting for an independent state in northern Mali. Following the death of Col Muammar Gadafy, the jihadist group MNLA has latched on to the cause, forming an “aggressive alliance” with jihadists in the north. A declaration of sharia law has seen many residents of Timbuktu and Gao leave for surrounding countries, such as Burkina Faso.
Many of these refugees are musicians, as, since 2012, the mujahideen of Gao and Timbuktu have forbidden the broadcasting of all music. One recalls being told: “Don’t play your guitar and you won’t get hurt.”
They Will Have to Kill Us First finds a focal point in the band Songhoy Blues, from their formation in Bamako to their international collaborations with Africa Express, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner (who also provides the film's memorable score).
The project might have tipped over into cultural tourism – or become just another Buena Vista Social Club clone – were it not for the presence of Khaira Arby, the grande dame of Malian music, and Fadimata Walet Oumar, aka Disco, a singer who left fearing that her oppressors would "cut out her tongue" and who subsequently became a translator at refugee camps.
Against all odds, these two women return home to stage a concert in their native country. Music, says Khaira, is like oxygen; people cannot live without it. It’s a lovely romantic sentiment and, in this context, an impossibly brave idea.
The tech specs – notably Karelle Walker’s shimmering cinematography – are remarkable for what is, after all, a frontline documentary. Be fair warned: this film will make you want to hug your record collection, and add to it.