Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mali Blues

Fatoumata Diawara

Ahmed Ag Kaedi

Bassékou Kouyaté

Rapper Master Soumy

Fatoumata Diawara

MALI BLUES            C+                  
Mali  Germany  (90 mi)  2016  d:  Lutz Gregor             Official Site

A curiosity of sorts, as it’s a compilation of conversations with several musicians from Mali mixed with concert footage, with a behind-the-scenes backdrop of political upheaval in the northern desert region of Mali where in 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb assumed control of the region, implementing their version of Sharian law, and have prohibited dance and forbidden the use of music, eliminating the Festival of the Desert while rounding up and smashing guitars, burning studios, and threatening to kill musicians.  Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south or to neighboring countries.  A subject touched upon in Abderrahmane Sissako’s earlier film Timbuktu (2014), one of the cities that was overrun by jihadist fanatics, who banned not only the playing but even listening to music.  One of those musicians depicted in the film is basically the star of this film, Fatoumata Diawara, seen here singing in Sissako’s film, TIMBUKTU' - Clip La Musica (2:06), whose colorful outfits and everpresent smile lend a sunny tone to the film, where we hear her say early on, “I can’t imagine a life without music.  It would be like the Earth stopped turning.”  Raised in Mali, but currently living in France, she’s actually better known in Europe, where she was apprehensive about her first solo performance in Mali, as we see her nervously arriving at the Bamako airport, the nation’s southern capital, a city never occupied by the jihadists. The film follows various musicians arriving for the outdoor, open-air, 2015 Niger River Festival in Ségou, an annual 5-day festival of music, attracting an audience of over 35,000 people, suddenly the best place to hear live Malian music.  The stage is actually a floating pontoon sitting just off the banks of the Niger River, where water separates the audience from the musicians, though many hardy souls waded in to dance.  Situated in the heart of West Africa, Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth, but is also the original source of traditional African rhythms transported to America by slaves, giving rise to American blues and jazz.  Music has always been associated with Mali’s cultural identity, where their rich heritage includes Ali Farka Touré, the godfather of desert blues and a superstar on the African continent, along with his son Vieux Farka Touré who has continued his father’s legacy, Fanta Damba, whose career stretched four decades and was primarily responsible for introducing the music of Mali to Europe, Salif Keita, who introduced Afro-pop, usually seen in his colorful African garb, a descendent of Sundiata Keita, one of the founders of the Malian empire in the 13th century, Amadou and Mariam, a husband and wife blind couple specializing in pop fusion, and Oumou Sangaré, perhaps today’s biggest Malian star, a female force popularizing the regional Wassoulou-inflected style practiced by Fatoumata Diawara, who also provided the excruciatingly beautiful music in Sissako’s WAITING FOR HAPPINESS (2002), including what is arguably the most hauntingly beautiful song ever heard, “Djorolen,” Oumou Sangaré - Djorolen - YouTube (8:21).

Upon returning to a beautiful home overlooking the Niger river which cuts through the center of town, with the city of Bamako on the other side, Fatou acknowledges her guitar purchased this house, as she greets other arriving musicians, including Tuareg master guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, leader of the band Amanar, a quietly introspective man who fled the religious persecution in Kidal, part of the northern desert, where extremists burned his home and his guitars before threatening to cut his fingers off.  Now exiled from the desert, he laments being in a big city, with too much pollution, too much noise, and too many people, but it’s no longer safe to return to his hometown.  Accordingly, he sits in open public places dressed in flowing robes and a white turban quietly playing his amplified guitar as people scurry about, moving from place to place around town to practice, with Fatou joining him on a rooftop musical session, both knowing what it is to feel exiled.  Hopping on a bus, Fatou takes off for the southern countryside, returning to her village home near the border of Ivory Coast, where she’s unsure how her family will feel about her, having abruptly left home to avoid a forced marriage, a custom that is part of her Wassoulou culture.  With vendors along the way offering hard-boiled eggs and plastic bags of water, we don’t really get a feel for the passing landscape, as the camera never gets out and explores the territory, missing an opportunity, instead remaining too close to Fatou’s side.  She is openly embraced by the colorfully attired village women, who sit in chairs under a tree and listen to her perform a heartfelt, personalized song “Boloko” pleading to stop the practice of female genital circumcision (“Don’t cut the flower that makes me a woman”), a powerful song directed against a cultural practice in Africa that affects up to 140 million women, including Fatou herself, with 38 out of 54 African states continuing the male-dominated custom, and the subject of an earlier film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, MOOLAADE (2004).  While the shocking practice actually claims the lives of as many as 15% of the young girls, performed by local elders or midwives, often without sterilized medical equipment or even anesthesia, causing infections, infertility, and childbirth complications, a decades-long United Nations campaign against it has done little to stop the practice.  According to a 2014 article from The Guardian (What is female genital mutilation and where does it happen? | Society ...), “In eight countries, almost all young girls are cut.  In Somalia, the prevalence is 98%, in Guinea 96%, in Djibouti 93% and in Egypt, in spite of its partly westernised image, 91%.  In Eritrea and Mali the figure is 89% and a prevalence of 88% was reported in both Sierra Leone and Sudan.”

We are also introduced to Bassékou Kouyaté, who specializes in the ngoni instrument, an ancient traditional lute that he describes as the predecessor to the banjo, though he modernizes the sound, using amplifiers and a wah-wah pedal, allowing him to transform the traditional sound of an acoustic instrument to a powerhouse, near psychedelic electrical force.  Kouyaté and his family are griots, part of an African oral tradition that dates back centuries, a living archive of his people’s customs, masters of the word, responsible for passing down the history of his people, where he toured together with the late Ali Farka Touré, standing out as the only ngoni player.  Because of his distinguished position, he brings both male and female musicians into a mosque, passing through a metal detector, where they are frisked, with uniformed guards present as they meet a Muslim teacher and Imam, first asking permission for the whites to be present to film a documentary.  Asking what Islam has to say about the practice of outlawing music, the Imam claimed the Koran does not forbid music, but he did raise a distinction between different kinds of music, as not all is positive, raising the question of what would be considered culturally destructive or harmful, and who has the power to make that claim.  While Kouyaté was often invited by the nation’s President to play music at state affairs, he envisions himself as a voice of the people, but that honor is likely bestowed upon rap artist Master Soumy, a young rapper in a T-shirt who is the most openly defiant, making angered political statements of social rebellion, claiming that’s the easiest way to promote social change.  Targeting corrupt politicians, he relentlessly attacks the hypocrisy of voices of Islamic intolerance, rallying the audience into a frenzy.

Kalashnikovs and bombs, explain your Islam.
Murder and torture, explain your Islam.
Before you forbid me laughing, explain your Islam.

Master Soumy contrasts the protest music of rappers with the more established position of griots, who have been integrated into the culture of Mali for centuries, often singing the praises of rich and powerful patrons, who then shower them with new cars, houses, or airplane tickets, while doing all they can to prevent rappers from performing.  Claiming griots ignore the negative side of society, rappers fill the void by telling the truth, by being the voice of the voiceless.  Disgusted by how easily people sell out for money, rappers are forced to beg for sponsorships, as the Malian record industry has been decimated by piracy.  Still, ignoring the threats leveled against them, which in the volatile political climate of Mali is certainly dangerous, they stand up for what they believe in, suggesting “Rap is music that can change society, that can change mentalities.”  As introductory pieces on the four musicians lead to later concert footage, which feels powerful, but is constantly interrupted with a quick cutting technique, where we only hear fragments, some of which is outstanding, but the film only touches on the surface, never really delving into any prolonged curiosity or discussion, which may leave some viewers infuriated by the choppiness of the editing style, feeling stagnant, with little direction.  Nonetheless, it’s an extraordinary portrait of Fatoumata Diawara, who remains central to the film, and for that footage alone the film is worth seeing. 

Fatoumata Diawara - AFH180 - YouTube  Africa Festival 2010 (12:31)

Fatoumata Diawara - African sound & dance styles - Live in ... - YouTube  live concert from Holon, Israel on March 1, 2013 (18:55)

Africa Festival 2014 : Fatoumata Diawara | ARTE Concert  Africa Festival 2014  (1:32:14)

Baloise Sessions Fatoumata Diawara Full Concert HD  live concert from Basel, Switzerland, November 10, 2014 (1:36:49)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Maud Lewis

MAUDIE                    B                    
Ireland  Canada  (115 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Aisling Walsh       Official site

A highly personalized and acutely intimate film whose strength lies in the outstanding performances of the two central actors, Sally Hawkins, who seems to specialize in playing kooky, offbeat characters, from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) and Woody Allen’s 2013 Top Ten List #7 Blue Jasmine, is Maud Dowley, whose brittle body is suffering from the effects of having contracted polio at a young age, but also rheumatoid arthritis, making it difficult to walk, and Ethan Hawke as Everett Lewis, an illiterate fish-peddler raised in a nearby orphanage, a man living alone in a one-roomed shack that is overly run down. Set in Nova Scotia, but actually shot in Newfoundland, the film is an Irish-Canadian production, with both countries heavily supportive of the arts.  With a minimalist script written by Sherry White, Maud is a quietly unsung heroine leading a life that was easily overlooked, even by her own family, where she’s constantly viewed as a burden, even an embarrassment, easily dismissed, where she’s grown used to being called a “cripple.”  Forcing her into a miserable life that she wants no part of, with her ambitious brother Charlie (Zachary Bennett) selling off the family home, sending her to live in Digby under the religiously strict care of her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose), with no one ever asking what she preferred.  Bolting out the door at the first chance, she jumps at the opportunity to work as the cleaning woman for Everett, walking the four miles to his isolated shack on the road to Marshalltown, a 10 by 12 foot dwelling with no running water, plumbing, or electricity.  As she’s a sight for sore eyes, he’s reluctant to hire her, turning her away at first, calling her “slim pickins,” forcing her to turn around and walk all the way back home.  But upon further reflection, he’s desperate for the help and gives her a second chance, driving to Ida’s home to pick her up, where she gathers up her belongings, with her aunt furious for leaving, telling her to never come back again, calling her a “whore.”  Her first day is dreadful, ordered to leave by nightfall, where it’s clear Everett, a man of few words, has no patience whatsoever for those not already self-motivated to work hard, where if she has to ask what to do, she may as well not show up at all.  By morning, however, she can be seen scrubbing the floors, making herself useful as he flies out the door on his morning rounds.  The intrusive camera never leaves Maud, following her every step of the way, where she becomes part of the viewer’s consciousness simply by immersing the audience into her highly personalized world.  Using a slow and extremely spare film style that follows the changing seasons, with almost whispering guitar music from Canadian Cowboy Junkie Michael Timmins, where often not much happens, but this allows their world to remain distant and remote, which heightens the individuality of their experience.

Lewis is brutally harsh with her from the outset, even uncomfortably so, yet that is in keeping with his hard scrabble life, a guy who scrounges anything that he can for a living, where he still occasionally eats with the boys of the orphanage for performing needed work around the premises, where the Catholic brother in charge, Mr. Hill (Greg Malone), is likely his only friend in the world.  When Maud’s initial presence at the cabin surprises one of Everett’s customers, he inappropriately whacks her right on the jaw for opening her mouth, punished for just trying to be friendly.  He makes it clear that as far as he’s concerned, the order of importance is “Me, them dogs, them chickens, then you.”  There are long sequences where little is spoken, as Lewis is away during the day, while Maud discovers a can of paint, initially painting flowers and animals on the cabin walls, as a form of decoration to brighten things up.  As time goes on, she paints walls, doors, breadboxes, even the stove, while also finding scraps of wood grabbed out of garbage piles, using a clearly distinctive style, described as naïve art, due to the simplicity of the images and her lack of artistic training.  As a rule, she never mixed colors, but painted only things she knew, like outdoor scenes or nearby landscapes, where most are quite small, perhaps 8 by 10 inches, as the size was limited by the limited extent she could move her arms.  One of the few unanticipated scenes concerns the arrival of a modern day woman, Sandra (Kari Matchett), whose nice car and fancy clothes grab Maud’s attention, but she’s there to settle accounts with Lewis, as he owes her for some fish that he never delivered.  When she steps in the door, she’s impressed by the artwork she sees, offering to buy something, allowing her to set a price, actually commissioning her first work for $5 dollars.  Everett never saw much in her work, but he certainly appreciated the $5 dollars.  Maud decided to write down his business arrangements, keeping it all tallied on paper, so there would be no misunderstandings.  When Everett and Maud arrive at Sandra’s door with a handful of fish, Maud includes a receipt on the back of a card she painted, which only sparks Sandra’s interest for more.  Before long, they put a sign on a chair outside their home that paintings are for sale, some sitting in front of the windows, with more inside.  Despite the small asking price, Maud starts a healthy business on her own, deciding to put the name Lewis on each painting, as they share in the profits.  In their cramped quarters, with the only available bed in an upstairs loft, it was just a matter of time before they become intimate, with Maud insisting if they start doing that, they’ll need to get married.

One of the turning points in the film is a visit from a reporter and camera crew from a Canadian newspaper and television station, hearing that she’s selling paintings from the side of the road, and quite affordable at that, interviewing both in their home, though Everett barely utters a word, writing up a story that appears in the newspaper and shows on television, which spreads her fame across the entire nation, even receiving a letter from Vice-President Nixon requesting paintings that still hang in the White House, with others adorning the walls of the Legislative Building of Nova Scotia.  Whether due to jealousy, or just his overall ornery disposition, despite warming to Maud on occasion, Lewis maintains a gruff demeanor, even after they get married, as he seems to be channeling a combination of a down and out Tom Waits and an aging John McCabe (Warren Beatty) from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), cribbing one of his best lines from the film, where “All you've cost me so far is money and pain,” becomes “All you’ve meant to me so far is pain, pain, pain,”  His constant misery grows amusing after a while, as she’s quite the opposite, always upbeat, even humorous, with a cryptic wit, seeing a brighter side, appreciating the smaller things, where her vibrantly colorful paintings reflect her interior world.  Nonetheless, at some point, feeling particularly low, Everett deplores all the trouble she’s worth, claiming once again that she’s “less than a dog,” where his bleak and overly glum outlook becomes a contentious sticking point in their relationship, refusing to give her any credit, where she’s forced to walk out on him, moving into a spare room with Sandra, where she’s actually able to appreciate some of the finer things for a change.  Missing her dearly, however, and bemoaning his loss, Everett’s life isn’t the same without her, where it’s clear he’s fighting his own instincts, as he hasn’t a clue how to explain why he’s drawn to her.  There is no grand reconciliation, just a simple acknowledgement, “We’re like a pair of old socks,” she says, as the two often misunderstood misfits seem to be stronger together.  Over time, Maud receives all the work she can handle, yet they never think to move into a bigger or more comfortable place to live, both quite happy where they are, living on the edge of town.  For the audience, however, spending so much time in their cramped, claustrophobic quarters is like being in the engine room of a submarine where there’s simply no elbow room, constantly feeling confined and hemmed in.  This is not without consequences.  As they rely upon a wood burning stove for heat, with Maud spending so much time indoors, she develops emphysema, making it difficult to breathe.  With her decreasing mobility from her debilitating arthritis, causing a shortened range of motion, Hawkins actually underplays her disability, which was much more profound than what’s shown onscreen, though in keeping with the quiet spaciousness of the film, there’s an eloquent acoustic refrain sung near the end by Margo Timmins that seems to be a fitting eulogy of her life, Something More Besides You - YouTube (2:02), with many of her paintings seen throughout the final credit sequence, and while sold for less than $10 dollars, some have amassed an auction price of more than $20,000.  A large collection of her work can be found in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, including her fully restored house, which was saved by local citizens, going through a 25-year struggle to maintain the home.  While not shown in the film, the story has an even worse end, as nine years after Maud died, Everett was killed when a burglar murdered him during an attempted robbery in his home.