African music is the background to many of my best memories growing up in Malawi and then visiting dozens of African countries in the past several decades as a writer, traveller, and safari specialist. I also love watching movies and documentaries, so this list of music-themed documentaries is my idea of a perfect “watch list” for a rainy day!
1. Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars
This documentary premiered on PBS in 2007 and I loved it from the opening minutes. I still listen to their music all the time, and they now tour in the US on a regular basis. If the refugee is today’s tragic icon of a war-ravaged world, then Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a reggae-inflected band born in the camps of West Africa, represents a real-life story of survival and hope. The six-member Refugee All Stars came together in Guinea after civil war forced them from their native Sierra Leone. Traumatized by physical injuries and the brutal loss of family and community, they fight back with the only means they have — music. The result is a tableau of tragedy transformed by the band’s inspiring determination to sing and be heard.
2. Searching for Sugar Man
Officially a British/Swedish documentary, Searching for Sugar Man is about two South Africans in search of their musical hero from the 1970’s – Rodriguez. Rodriguez was an inspiration to many South Africans (especially white South Africans). In South Africa his albums were more popular than anything the Rolling Stones put out. His anti-establishment songs had a profound affect on the youth of the day who were stuck in the stifling era of Apartheid and sanctions. But Rodriguez, who lived and recorded in Detroit was completely unknown in the US, he only sold half a dozen records.
3. Throw Down Your Heart – Bela Fleck
A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Bela Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins. It’s a wonderful documentary with some fantastic music and footage of Bela playing with musicians from Uganda, Tanzania, Gambia and Mali. Another soundtrack I listen to all the time, it stays wonderfully fresh.
4. Under African Skies
For all of us who grew up listing to Paul Simon’s Graceland, this a documentary you must watch! Under African Skies celebrates the 25th anniversary of this fantastic album as Paul Simon returns to South Africa to meet up with his fellow collaborators. The central theme concerns the controversy surrounding the making of the album with regards to Apartheid, cultural boycott’s – the things that consumed us in the 1980’s. Paul Simon is unapologetic in his reasons for going to South Africa and playing with local musicians and later touring with them for several years all over the world. You also hear the ANC’s perspective, along with a host of others including Harry Belafonte, Oprah and more. The documentary really leaves the judging to the viewer, but overall it’s the music and the human relationships that win out.
5. Music by Prudence
Music by Prudence was directed and produced by Roger Ross Williams and Elinor Burkett. The documentary tells the story of Prudence, a Zimbabwean lady with a strong voice but a weak body. She suffers from a debilitating condition called arthrogryposis which has left her crippled and deformed. The documentary charts her life in rural Zimbabwe where she led a life of poverty and some years of severe abuse. Her salvation comes in the form of a privately funded school for disabled children in Bulawayo, and from there Prudence finds her voice.