"The quality of a country is in its culture." So proclaims one of the native African musicians in director Dearbhla Glynn's excellent documentary on two Irish musicians' journey through Mali to perform at the world's most remote musical festival, 'Festival au Desert'.

Covering thousands of miles across a country known as 'Africa's Heart', Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam O'Maonlaí and renowned Uilleann pipes player Paddy Keenan serve as our eyes into Mali.

The two Irish musicians guide the movie as they journey through stunning terrain from Bamako in the south of the country, to Timbuktu in the north, from where they enter the Sahara - the venue for 'Festival au Desert'.

Essentially a road movie, Glynn's film is driven by music and its ability to connect people. As acclaimed Malian musician Afel Bocoum (who collaborated on Blur frontman Damon Albarn's 2002 'Mali Music' project) so beautifully puts it, "the most powerful way of communicating is through music; music is without borders."

With a population of 12m people, Mali - a sub-Saharan country in the West of Africa - has suffered from long-standing drought since the mid-1980s and is among the five poorest countries in the world.

Refreshingly, however, Glynn endeavours to point her camera in the direction at all that should be celebrated about Mali, rather than that which should be sympathised with.

Stunningly shot, the country is captured as beautiful, vibrant, colourful and culturally rich, and so we are spared the typically dark and dismal portraits of the continent which we are unfortunately much accustomed to.

As musicians from whose eyes we peer through, Keenan and O'Maonlaí are excellent choices to guide Irish audiences. Glynn subtly seeks to draw comparisons between Irish and Malian cultures, and these are further drawn out by O'Maonlaí and Keenan as they immerse themselves within the country.

Long inspired by Irish music, language and his traditional roots, O'Maonlaí is genuinely fascinated by indigenous people and their music, and this fascination prompts him to throw himself straight into the culture as he dances with the natives, dresses like them and is drawn into their music.

Keenan too brings another perspective and, as a member of the Travelling Community, is drawn to the Malians' nomadic culture and is able to find links between his life growing up as a Traveller and that of the people he encounters.

While music links both the duo and the people, Keenan and O'Maonlaí's own backgrounds draw them closer into Mali, and thus heighten our understanding of the country's culture and its people.

In music, the two traditions share similarities. Mali's Kora is akin to our Harp, while their Griot form of singing bears similarities to our Sean Nós style.

Both exquisite players within their own countries, this musical feast of a film benefits from the input of native artists as Keenan and O'Maonlaí collaborate with esteemed musicians such as Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabaté and Tinariwen.

Yet music aside, Mali itself serves as an important character in Glynn's film. We're taken along the river Niger; stop in villages and river towns such as Mopti and Djenné and visit old historical regions within the country. The style of the film is observational, and as viewers we observe the mingling of cultures and the country's rich history.

A unique work, which is well-told and unexpectedly moving in parts, 'Dambé: The Mali Project' proves something of a feast for music lovers, and an educational journey into the beauty - rather than the darkness - of Africa's heart.

Steve Cummins

Visit the 'Dambé: The Mali Project' website.

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