'Return To Timbuktu'

'Return To Timbuktu' is a forthcoming feature-length documentary from filmmaker Michael Meredith about the return of musicians to Mali after the conflict.

It is unusual for music to play a central role in the news headlines about a country in conflict— most of the time, the arts are at best a footnote to a political story. But when Islamist militants took control over Northern Mali in mid-2012, much of the reportage described how the jihadists outlawed music, destroyed instruments and cracked down on those who refused to be silenced. Music is at the very center of Mali’s soul. In the griot tradition, you hear the whispers of what became American blues, and the country continues to be a site of creative innovation that has increasingly spread around the world and captured the attention of seasoned ethnomusicologists and plaid-clad hipsters alike. So when the music was silenced, the country’s soul was crushed.

Director Michael Meredith, a mentee of Wim Wenders (the filmmaker behind Buena Vista Social Club), understood that as well. Driven by the music that has captured so many global imaginations, he traveled to Mali in January 2013 to work with the director of the Festival in the Desert Manny Ansar as a photographer and videographer. January was also the month that French paratroopers began to drop from the sky, adding another layer to an already complex conflict, and the Festival was canceled. Ansar instead organized the Caravan for Peace, which circled the area of conflict and featured Mariam Koné, Khaira Arby, Amanar and others. Meredith documented the trip, the refugee camps in the surrounding areas and made his first trip to Timbuktu. This journey became the beginnings of Meredith’s first documentary film project Return to Timbuktu.

The film is still in production, and Meredith will be traveling to Mali again this year to document the return of musicians to Northern Mali. Whether it will be a triumphant rebirth of the Festival in the Desert or a more fraught homecoming is still unclear, and in many ways will dictate how the story ends. But what is clear is that it will explore, in a way that has not been done before, the power of music in Mali and will feature the likes of Tinariwen, Amanar, Khaira Arby, Vieux Farka Touré, Imarhan Timbuktu, Sidi Touré, Mariam Koné and more.

The production team is raising funds to be able to finish filming in Mali. Head here for details on how to support the project and watch the film's pitch video along with clips with Sidi Touré and Mariam Kone below.


6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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