Lexington filmmaker's movie focuses on plight of West African musicians

Malian musician Ben Zabo played his guitar for children on a street in Mali's capital, Bamako. Many musicians fled the country after extremists took power.
Malian musician Ben Zabo played his guitar for children on a street in Mali's capital, Bamako. Many musicians fled the country after extremists took power.

The musicians of Mali may not be classically trained, but their music is nonetheless spellbinding and continues to be played even though an invasion has forced them to flee from their homes with little but their clothing and talent.

The short film Sahel Calling, directed and edited by native Lexingtonian John Bosch-Holmes, shows how the North Mali musicians confronted an invasion of Taliban extremists they thought would suppress their ability to make music.

The story begins when the president was deposed in April 2012, and Muslim insurgents made their way into northern Mali, insisting that the population practice a strict form of Islam that discourages music. Mali residents, among them musicians both professional and amateur, many of them Muslim themselves, fled to such countries as Burkina Faso.

"It's just a very musical society," said Bosch-Holmes, a Henry Clay High School graduate. "It's oral tradition. Their histories aren't really written down as much as they are told as much as they are sung or danced. They are very, very skilled musicians."

Bosch-Holmes first went to Bamako, the capital city of Mali, in 2011. He met up with an old friend of his to make some music videos.

Meanwhile, Kathryn Werntz, an American based in Berlin, "was looking for someone to help her make this film," he said. "She was really moved by some of the stories coming out of northern Mali."

Hence Sahel Calling in its present short form came to be, with Bosch-Holmes as director. Bosch-Holmes, who with his crew worked in the area in early 2013, hopes to produce an extended version.

"The hope is to turn this awareness-raising film into a feature length film that would be a documentary, but the scope would change a little bit," Bosch-Holmes said. "I'd hope to focus on one or two musicians there and get ... more into what life is like there, day to day, and explain how democracy is advancing there."

Bosch-Holmes said the Mali situation, "is a complex political situation, but we really wanted to focus on the stories of the musicians."

"We didn't meet anybody that had bad things happen to them directly ... but that's because they got out in time," he said.

These days, many of the musicians are performing in refugee camps, where Bosch-Holmes said, "they really strive to maintain some of their dignity and keep their spirits up through performing of music. ... They don't really have much. Some brought their vehicle. Some have their animals with them. Being displaced from your home is bad enough, but having to deal with all the things that come along with it, we were very moved."

Bosch-Holmes said that he had heard recently that some of the film's subjects were able to go back to Mali, but he is not sure how secure their situation was, or whether they were able to return to their homes.

Bosch-Holmes, 46, graduated from Henry Clay High School in 1985. He is the son of Carolyn Holmes, former director of the Office of International Affairs at the University of Kentucky, and Charles Holmes, a retired English professor at Transylvania University.

"Bosch" is a nickname he got as a young man, after he performed in a band called Bosch Society in the 1980s.

His mother is helping promote Bosch-Holmes' upcoming screening of his short film at the Lexington Public Library's downtown branch, which will include a panel discussion with Bosch-Holmes and Essa Bokarr Sey, a former Gambian ambassador, and local West Africans.

Carolyn Holmes said her son's interest in the Mali region may have been influenced from growing up in a household with strong international ties.

"Maybe it rubbed off without either one of us being aware of it," she said.

'Sahel Calling'

Directed and edited by Lexington native John Bosch-Holmes

When: 2 p.m. Nov. 3.

Where: Central Public Library, Farish Theater.

Cost: Free. Authentic West African food prepared by Sav's Grill will be served following the program.