Just its title has an ominous sense of finality: The Last Song Before the War.
The documentary by Kiley Kraskouskas presents the 2011 Festival in the Desert, a showcase for Mali’s incredible musicians that had been held underneath the stars outside of Timbuktu for 12 years. Ten months after the joyous celebration depicted in the film, Islamic extremists took over that part of the country. Among the horrors inflicted by the occupiers was a total ban on music.
As Last Song shows, the festival began after a treaty between the Malian government and Touareg groups who had been struggling for a separate northern homeland. This musical event accentuated the benefits of national unity. The 2003 recording, Festival In The Desert, includes performances from the late guitar hero Ali Farka Touré and the Touareg band Tinariwen, who have since become global rock stars. The film shows how the 2011 festival paid homage to these lineages with an electrifying performance from Touré’s son, Vieux Farka Touré, and younger Touareg guitarist Bombino.
The film doesn’t just offer great performances. Touareg ensemble leaders wonder if they can maintain their culture while living in cities. The dynamic Khaira Arby describes her challenges as a female singer in northern Mali. Her father didn’t want her to continue performing after her first solo performance in 1970 and tried to marry her off. But, for her, singing was, “searching for freedom.”
Meanwhile, the outwardly cheerful festival organizer Manny Ansar chuckles about carrying a sound system through the desert.
“We wanted to have a theme with each day of the festival,” said Kraskouskas of the documentary. “With day one, we wanted to have the big Malian stars and introduce Manny setting it up. For day two, we focused on the Tuareg musicians. For day three, it was peace and Khaira’s story. This allowed us to make the festival primary but still go into the characters’ stories. And then feel the sadness and shock that we felt when it all fell apart.”
The film shows that security concerns increased during the 2011 festival. Those fears became prescient when Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters swept into the region in 2012. Although French and Malian troops eventually recaptured the area, scars still remain.
Still, there is still hope that the festival will return, and so a potential follow-up documentary may be more optimistic. A settlement between the Malian government and different militant northern groups has been in place since Feb. 20, although factions remain armed. The festival has staged a series of smaller concerts as Caravan Of Peace in different cities, and Ansar recently returned to Mali. Kraskouskas also mentioned that nongovernmental organizations, like the ONE Campaign, are trying to raise funds to relaunch the musical celebration.
“We hope to have the festival back by next January and everyone can come back safely,” Ansar told Goats and Soda from Bamako, the capital of Mali. “People have tried to stop the music in Timbuktu, but we have friends, especially in America, who have helped us. This music is about peace and freedom of expression, and those are always important to support.”
Learn more about the the production of the film from our friends over at NPR Music.