I happen to love music documentaries. Jerry Seinfeld said, “I could read the sports section if my hair was on fire.” That’s how I feel about music docs; I’m only too happy to recommend my favorites. I love the classics of the form, like the deeply felt short movies by Les Blank; his first, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, is a poetic masterpiece. I love the historical documents, like Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, and more recently the fantastic Summer of Soul.
In fact, the art of the music doc has seemed especially strong the last fifteen years or so. Filmmakers in the digital era have access to so many different kinds of source material, and they can sometimes create richer portraits with them. There have been lengthy explorations that produce real insights, like those on George Harrison (Living in the Material World, directed by Martin Scorcese) and Tom Petty (Runnin’ Down a Dream, directed by Peter Bogdanovich). There have been well-crafted love letters, throbbing with joy (The Velvet Underground, directed by Todd Haynes; Gimme Danger, the story of Iggy and the Stooges, directed by Jim Jarmusch). More in the vein of tragedy, What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus) and Amy (directed by Asif Capadia) present stark and detailed portraits of Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse, capturing some of the darkness of mental illness and substance abuse.
From within this broad field, I have a very particular love for one film: Throw Down Your Heart (directed by Sascha Paladino). It starts from a simple premise: the banjo, which has long been associated with white Appalachian music, has its roots in Africa. Virtuoso player Béla Fleck takes his banjo to four countries (Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia, and Mali) to learn more about these connections, and what he encounters there is fascinating. String instruments like the n’goni and the akonting are clear antecedents to the banjo, and Fleck finds common ground playing with masters of these instruments. His linking of traditions, even with its acknowledgment of the killing fields of the slave trade, is extraordinary and moving.
The film travels to several rural areas, but progresses to the capital city of Bamako in Mali, which it calls “the crown jewel of African music.” All roads, in a sense, lead to the superstar singer based there—and the final performer in the film—the incomparable Oumou Sangaré, sometimes called the Songbird of Wassulu (a local region with its own language, in which she performs). It’s one measure of her power that she has simplified the spelling from the traditional Wassoulou; when she’s ready to see a change, she makes it.
Sangaré began singing in the streets of Bamako at the age of sixteen to support her family. Nearly four decades and many albums later, she has risen to become an ambassador for her culture, as well as an accomplished businesswoman and political advocate. The movie charts her stardom within Mali: she is followed by large crowds wherever she travels, and her car needs no license plates, as everybody just knows who she is. Her voice is a marvel, cutting and keening and full of emotion. Sangaré’s collaboration with Fleck on the soaring “Ah Ndiya” is a highlight of these sessions, a hypnotic reimagining of a song from her extensive catalogue of recordings.
It was her first album, Moussolou, completed in 1989 when she was twenty-one, that made her royalty in Africa, selling a large number of copies and putting her in the company of Baaba Maal, Femi Kuti, and other prominent musicians. She took up various political causes, many related to women’s rights, such as the abolition of child marriage and polygamy, and has toured as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Sangaré started the Festival International Wassoulou (FIWA) to bring attention to her homeland. In an interview with PAM (pan-african-music.com, an indispensable resource), she reflected on the resolve she had to develop to become this kind of artist and figurehead. “It’s tough to rattle me,” she concluded.
Sangaré has released four albums before and four since Throw Down Your Heart, the most recent of which is this year’s Timbuktu. Stuck in the US during the early months of COVID, she decided to settle in Baltimore and focus intently on the music for this recording with her friend and n’goni player Mamadou Sidibé. She credits the downtime with getting her to settle into the music. Traditional acoustic instruments predominate, creating a simple frame for Sangaré’s magisterial voice. The French producers on the recording added gliding dobros and slide guitars, another layer of vibrating emotion. The result was this impassioned recording, remembering and celebrating the musicians’ homeland from afar. Sangaré acknowledges the seminal nature of these sessions, saying grandly and gloriously, “I put my life into this record—this life in which I knew hunger, the humiliation of poverty and fear, and from which I now draw glory.”
The first cut, “Wassulu Don,” grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up, powered by the kind of driving, growling African blues played by her mentor Ali Farka Touré. The title is a cry of joy and pride uttered in the home region of Sangaré’s mother. Some of Sangaré’s power seems to derive from a sense of ancestral visitation. That natural intergenerational flow also animates a beautiful scene in Throw Down Your Heart, when a Ugandan musician asks Fleck, “Would you like to see the grave of my late father?” and learns that the grave is right behind the man’s home. He describes often passing by there and leaving a stone of remembrance and accompaniment, then breaks down in tears. In this landscape, the dead are never far away, and their ancestors welcome their memories.
The recording confidently covers wide territory. “Samara” stands out for its rolling groove, “Kanou” for its delicate clarity. The title track celebrates Timbuktu, which the lyrics pronounce a “crossroad of knowledge, where stood the greatest university in the world, the ancient mosque of Djingareyber … Timbuktu, city of the 333 saints, legendary city known all over the world!” Sangaré wants to return the fame to that ancient city, so scarred by war and poverty in its recent history. She has brought her message all over the world, to major halls like the Sydney Opera House, the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, and the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. Sangaré has continued to hone her craft over the years, and still sings with steadily simmering heat, periodically bringing the music to a full boil. Her presence is so strong that it’s no surprise she has begun acting, appearing in Hawa, a recent film by the French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré.
Sangaré is an intense and dynamic performer. I saw her play at Celebrate Brooklyn a little over a decade ago, and the memory of it is still etched firmly. She was almost startling in her ability to raise the crowd’s energy level, and I found myself at one point pressed up against and pounding on the stage. She shared very little common language with the audience, but her star power shone through. This month, she ends a short North American tour with a show at the Apollo on October 29. I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.