Malian musicians persevere against jihadists

By Matt Clevenger

In 2012, extremist groups captured an area larger than the UK in North Mali, instituting Sharia law and effectively banning most forms of music. Facing imprisonment, and in some cases death, bands and performing artists disappeared from the embattled territory almost overnight, going underground or fleeing to neighboring South Mali where they continue to practice their art in exile.

University of Dayton’s ArtsLIVE is helping to raise awareness of the situation, presenting the documentary film “They Will Have To Kill Us First” Tuesday, Nov. 1 at the Sears Recital Hall in the Jesse Philips Humanities Center. On Wednesday, Nov. 2, the university also hosts a rare American appearance by the South Malian group Trio Da Kali, featuring three traditional West African griots, or hereditary musicians from a long line of performers and storytellers.

Filmmaker Johanna Schwartz produced and directed the documentary, which follows the North Malian group Songhoy Blues throughout the jihadist takeover and subsequent banning of music. She answered a few questions about the film recently, speaking with the Dayton City Paper from the United Kingdom.

How and when did you first become aware of the situation between jihadists and musicians in North Mali? 

Johanna Schwartz: I first read about the conflict in Mali online: there was an article posted by The Independent, one of the leading UK newspapers. The headline was “Musicians of Mali fight for nation’s soul.” I read the article and felt utterly sick about what was happening. I had been a fan of Malian music for many years, and had longed to travel there to visit the infamous “Festival in the Desert” in Timbuktu. I knew almost immediately that this was something I had to dive deeper into. I wanted to document what this music ban was doing to the culture of Mali. It felt like it was an incredibly important story.

How did you raise the money for filming? 

JS: Very slowly, in bits and pieces. I paid for much of the film on my credit cards. Other crewmembers contributed smaller amounts and were helpful with waiving or delaying invoices. We also did a Kickstarter (raising around $50k), and towards the end of the project, we got three influential backers who together made up what we needed to finish the film. We were/are in full-on fundraising mode until the bitter end—it has been relentless.

What was it like filming in Mali? Did you ever feel like you were in danger? 

JS: I have always adored filming in Africa. There is no place better for a filmmaker, in my opinion. Interestingly, in Mali, I always felt safe, despite the country being in conflict. We had an incredible support network on the ground in Mali that included local producers, friends, and sometimes the UN officers in Mali, MINUSMA [The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali]. We made sure we were always careful and took precautions when we needed to. I felt comfortable with the choices I made. We had to be fluid when it came to filming—sometimes we wouldn’t go to a city we were planning on visiting because of rumored activities there. For the battle scenes, we got footage from war camerapersons who film conflict for a living. When we were heading up to Timbuktu to film the finale of the film, bringing music back for the first time since the music ban, we brought armed guards with us. That was probably the most dangerous trip of all. But we were careful and we got in and out without harm.

Is there anything that people watching the film outside of Mali can do to help? 

JS: Absolutely. Please support Malian artists in any way you can. Buy their music, recommend them to friends, book them to come play at your venue/festival/organization, or encourage local music venues to do so. You can donate to the MUSIC IN EXILE Fund, which we started to aid persecuted musicians just like those in Mali. Please spread the word about this film and encourage others to watch it and engage with the subject matter. A big conversation has been kick-started by this film, and we want that discussion to grow and grow. For further reading, we recommend the book “Music Culture and Conflict in Mali” by Andy Morgan.

Has anything changed since you left Mali? Is the situation there still the same as it appears
in the film? 

JS: In the nearly two years since we finished filming, the situation hasn’t changed that much. Peace agreements were signed, but the country is still in a state of flux. Old resentments are still at the forefront of people’s actions, and the death toll is steady. Extremist attacks still occur—at least one a month. Mali is still one of the most dangerous places on the planet for UN peacekeepers. Music has returned more or less to the country, but not in the way it existed before. In my opinion, the music industry was decimated and it will take years of stability to rebuild it.

‘They Will Have To Kill Us First’ screens at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 1 in the Sears Recital Hall at the University of Dayton’s Jesse Philips Humanities Center, 300 College Park in Dayton. Admission is free. Trio Da Kali will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2. Admission to the concert is $16 general admission, $12 UD affiliation, military, and senior discount, or $8 for UD students. For more information, please visit,, or

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Reach DCP freelance writer Matt Clevenger at

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