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True stories of melody, politics and struggle

At its best, film can capture lost stories that inspire, enlighten, educate and entertain. We won’t mention the worst here.

While not one of the best documentary videos ever made, “I’ll Sing for You” satisfies the important purposes mentioned above. Unlike many documentaries that try hard to keep a viewer’s short attention span, “Sing” is slow, meditative and subsequently worthy of a second viewing. It’s a beautifully shot and edited documentary about KarKar, a singer/songwriter and cultural icon from Mali, Africa.

The video images tell his life story, a political history of Mali, and how the two are interwoven. Between shots of KarKar fingerpicking his acoustic guitar while singing melodically, are languid montages that tell multiple stories. Most images are of culturally significant outdoor settings, like the soccer field, places of worship and market places.

Interviews that explain his biography are interwoven with stunning images of life in Mali, other parts of Africa and France. The scenic montages are filmed with a relaxed hand. The patient viewer is treated to images of kids playing, train rides through deserts, dusty soccer games, crowded market places, Muslim mosques and villages.

Fortunately, the audio quality is good. Babies can be heard crying a block away from the dusty courtyard where KarKar plays for a group of onlookers. He plays in many places, but never a concert hall. He plays for people on trains, on boats and in villages with thumping gourd accompaniment.

It is strange at first to see someone playing songs in the midst of day-to-day life because we usually see musicians in specially sanctioned venues or on the street where many of us just scoff and pass. “Sing” teaches that in prts of Africa, music is an integrated part of everyday life. It is life.

Music can also influence a country to unite for social change – in Mali’s case, for independence from their colonial rulers. KarKar’s songs in the early 1960s urged people to “wake up and work for independence.” He diligently recorded the message until independence came. One villager reminisced about how his village would wake up to KarKar’s positive pleas for freedom every morning.

Independence came, and for a while people were happy. Then they found out that life under any political system was difficult. Change brought new difficulties and some blamed KarKar.

One man tells a story of KarKar’s arrival into his village. Nearly everyone was excited and cheered his arrival, but one guy said, “Look it’s the guy who tricked us. His songs said fight for independence Mali, it will be paradise.” They didn’t see life as paradise, and some were angry.

Even as the African equivalent of a “rock star” for a short time, KarKar’s life was far from paradise. His history is told by people who knew him, and rarely by himself. His people lived under a caste system in which one is born into a role in life. Peasants are born griots who will serve nobles. Artists (as they should be) are nobles and KarKar was born a noble. He shows his nobility by playing with a passionate confidence. He exudes strength.

Like many of his young peers in the French colony, he went to the cinema often. He took up the guitar, turned up the collar on his jean jacket and became a rebellious icon. One of the first songs he heard as a little boy was about love. “I didn’t even know what love was!” he said. He later took up the issue of independence for his country.

Mali got independence. KarKar found love. He got married, had kids and quit playing music. Supporting a family wasn’t easy and for a while he sold cheap imported children’s underwear in the market.

Things got worse when his wife died. She was the love of his life and most of his friends thought he would be devastated. Instead he remained stoic and went deeper into his religion, Islam. Like the folk religions that were also prevalent, Islam provided the explanation and consolation needed to cope with a difficult life.

He laid low for a while and people started to think he was dead. An English producer heard a recording of his and came looking for him. KarKar emerged and many rejoiced. Eventually a camera crew followed him around, and “I’ll Sing for You” is the result.

“I’ll Sing For You” tells and shows multiple stories. The political story is interesting, but requires some attention. It’s a difficult global issue that we should all think about more often.

The story of KarKar’s life is simpler. He is a strong, stoic and gifted person who struggles like anyone. He inspires viewers to do good.

The other story is one of babies crying on soccer fields and trains rolling across the vast dry desert, a story of thousands of people spending the day mashing grain and selling underwear in markets. It’s a story that has no beginning or end, and it is much, much bigger than the tale of a talented man and his music.