Road to Baleya is a feature documentary film in which Canadian and Malian musicians come together on an extraordinary journey of musical collaboration, friendship and discovery in Mali, West Africa. It was shot before the Islamist insurgency, which is now threatening the future of Mali and its incredibly rich and diverse musical heritage. The film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and has been selected as part of the IMZ World Music Films On Tour programme in Vienna, Austria.
It follows the interactions between Malian musician Mansa Sissoko and Canadian musicians Lewis Melville, Dave Clark, Dale Morningstar and Tannis Slimmon as they travel to Mansa’s home village of Baleya. Melville is a mutli-instrumentalist and a music producer, who has come to Mali offering free recording sessions and instruments to local musicians. It’s his way of making a difference, trying to help fellow artists with their careers.
Road to Baleya centers on Melville’s work with Sissoko, and with students at Mali’s renowned Insitut National des Arts. Mansa is a griot, a hereditary caste in Malian society which maintains oral histories and comments on contemporary society through word and song. He is also a master kora player, the melodic 21-stringed African harp.
Their journey eventually takes them from the crowded, dusty streets of Bamako the capital, to the remote villages of the beautiful southwest hill country of Mali.
It is an emotional personal journey for Sissoko, who is returning to his home village for the first time since leaving as a small boy. The griot’s return triggers three days of musical ritual, dancing, ceremony and celebration, steeped in local Islamic and animist traditions.
For the audience it’s a rare glimpse into a traditional African society that is still working, where music and cultural tradition are the glue that holds it together, but where the forces of change are just at the edge of the frame – in fact just down the rutted dirt road that the villagers would like rebuilt to connect them with the outside world. Road to Baleya explores themes of music as a means of cross-cultural communication, and as a path to social and economic development. It also intersects with the very personal toll exacted by malaria on Malian society.
The Road to Baleya is a physical road but it’s also a journey of awareness, and an appreciation that we all have a contribution to make.
Running time: 89:00 and 48:00
Produced by Close Up Films in association with Bravo!, a division of CTV Limited
Produced in association with The Documentary Channel
Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
Produced with the financial participation of Rogers Documentary Fund and The Canadian and Ontario Film or Video Production Tax Credit
“A remarkable, touching film.”
The Globe and Mail, Toronto
“The musical interplay is remarkable, and so is the sense that music
and song provide a very real language of continuity in changing times.”
“Road to Baleya is a vivid documentation... This is a must-see for any
music lover, especially anyone already exposed to the wonderful music of this
country, made famous by Ry Cooder’s collaborative album Talking Timbuktu,
made with legendary Malian music star Ali Farka Toure.”
“Road to Baleya shows how music can bridge cultures.”
‘An inspiring and warm documentary, which will surely make you smile
The opportunity to make Road to Baleya was a gift that presented itself out of the blue a few years ago, when an old friend got in touch.
Lew Melville is a versatile musician and producer, known for recording special projects like Music For Peace, Afghanistan: On Guard For Thee?, and the songs of Burmese refugees recorded in camps along the Thai border – all at his own expense.
Now he was heading to Mali, West Africa, with some musician friends and his portable recording equipment, to record musicians who couldn’t afford access to local studios. It was Lew’s way of trying to help fellow artists, providing them with CDs of their work. and opening up paths of communication and understanding between people of different cultures, through music - the universal language.
I liked the idea of one person trying to make a difference. We often want to make a contribution in the developing world, but feel that we have to rely on professional aid organizations. Lew was just jumping in on his own, and I decided to jump with him.
Filmmakers can spend much of their time waiting for the financing of their projects. For me it was liberating to just plunge into shooting the film, and worry about the money later.
What I hadn’t anticipated was how much we would be immersed in the lives of the Malian musicians, and how important that would be in the narrative of the film. I knew that Lew would be doing much of his work with Mansa Sissoko, the griot and kora player. I suggested that we could travel to Mansa’s home village, Baleya, to connect with the roots of his music and any issues facing his people. I had no idea that it would be Mansa’s first visit since leaving as a two year-old boy, after the death of his father. This had a profound impact on the importance of his home-coming - for him and the villagers and for the film.
Life in Baleya was a revelation, where music, family and tradition seemed to be at the heart of the rich cultural vibrancy we experienced. And It made me reflect in a very personal way on the richness of life that was being lost in other parts of Africa, due to conflict, disease and famine.
This sense of loss became even more real, when one of the musicians in Mansa’s band who had traveled with us to Baleya, died of malaria the following year. A senseless death from a preventable and treatable disease of a hugely talented young man.
The Road to Baleya took me in directions I couldn’t have imagined, an intense journey of awareness. I hope that it will encourage other people to get involved in their world - to jump in and make a difference.