A few years ago a group of hoteliers got together in the pleasant but unremarkable stopover of Segou along the banks of the Niger river to work out how to get people to stay for a while in their town. Thus the Festival sur le Niger was born and this year it burst its banks
This is a tale of two festivals. Inside the perimeter, scruffily-dressed tourists are massively outnumbered by well-dressed Malians dancing, joking and singing back their favourite songs to the singers on stage. As one hugely popular act after another takes to the floating stage, the crowd inches further forward towards the water’s edge. Security pushes people back — sometimes rather roughly. A style of crowd control more suited to an angry demonstration than a festival of culture. Mostly, however, the goodwill holds and on the first night, the story is all about the music.
One artist you will hear on every transistor in the country is Oumou Sangaré. Hers is without question the voice of Mali. One chancer even bounces across the pirogues beside the stage and manages to get a spot of dancing on stage.
With nothing better to do I had got there early, found a seat and sat under the stars listening to one of my favourite albums, In the Heart of the Moon played over the dark expanse of the Niger. Having been in Mali a month and rarely heard anyone play Ali Farka Touré’s work, it was a pleasant surprise to see his old band commanded the crowd’s attention when they kicked off proceedings a little bit later that night. Sadly Ali’s son Vieux Farka Touré did not make it despite being on the bill. He was playing that night but in Canada. Also absent was Ali’s protégé Afel Bocoum, whose band had suffered a bereavement and so they were absent too.
Tinariwen, who hope to conquer the pop charts in Europe this year with their excellent new album had to win over a sceptical audience. Firstly, their CDs and cassettes are barely available in Mali and secondly the image of being a gun wielding music rebel is less appealing when you are playing in front of an audience comprised of those you once fought against. With some rocking tunes and judicious use of local greetings, the audience was indeed won over, the message of reconciliation appreciated.
Locals unwilling or unable to pay the steep entrance fee had resolved to get in one way or another and sometime into the second band on Saturday night a group had managed to breach a fence. Panicking, the security forces fired off several rounds of tear gas.
One artist you will hear, on pretty much every transistor in the country is Oumou Sangaré. Hers is without question the voice of Mali. The audience knows every song by heart. One chancer even bounces across the pirogues (local canoes) beside the stage and manages to get a spot of dancing on stage done before the bouncers cop on and remove him. As the crowd spills out of the grounds at the end of the night, spirits are high and expectations of a great festival commonplace.
The next day as masked processions and puppet shows give way to griot singers, accounts from backpackers who were too broke to pay for a ticket come in of police whacking local children with sticks and kicking them for trying to watch the concert from a nearby pier without paying.
Unfortunately, the tear gas drifted across the crowd. Like many others I coughed and spluttered my way away from the stage and let the fumes disperse
If security on the first night looked like it could not really control the crowds, the atmosphere on the second was decidedly edgier. Locals unwilling or unable to pay the steep entrance fee had resolved to get in one way or another and sometime into the second band on Saturday night a group had managed to breach a fence. Panicking, the security forces fired off several rounds of tear gas.
Unfortunately, the tear gas drifted across the crowd. Like many others I coughed and spluttered my way away from the stage and let the fumes disperse. In retrospect, the calmness of the crowd and the sheer luck that a larger part of the crowd had not been downwind was the difference between a disrupted gig and people being crushed in a panic.
Perhaps the presence of two ministers and a clutch of Ambassadors had put the security under pressure or maybe orders had come through to prevent at all costs the freeloading of the night before. Or maybe it was just a scared and inexperienced policeman doing something very stupid.
Bassekou Kouyaté plays the ngoni, a small gourd with a piece of dowel sticking out and three strings. This rather humble instrument is somehow coaxed by the genius of Bassekou into producing a shower of notes not unlike the effect of its 21 string distant relative the kora
That same night Toumani Diabaté played the gig of his life helped by star after star joining him on stage. Amadou and Mariam ambled on for a very different version of their hit Dimanche a Bamako and local stars and griots kept the crowd on its toes. It was Habib Koite though that many had come to see. Earlier in the day a local had patiently explained to me how because he could play so many instruments, compose and sing, it was ridiculous to suggest that anyone else could compete with Habib for best musician in Mali status. Right there, right then under the stars, who could argue as he rocked the crowd?
That night as the crowds spilled onto the streets, the gassing and the increasingly out of control security leant the air an edge it had not had before. A gendarme tried to score a bizarre point with me by demonstrating that I did not know the Bambara word for the street food I was eating. Triumphantly he told me it was called a ‘patty’. I hadn’t the courage to disabuse him of the word’s origins. A drunk Rasta blurted out a blacks for Africa, Europeans back to Europe message before I quickly excused myself and disappeared into the night. As it would happen, he was a friend of a friend and when we met the next night he was rather embarrassed by the whole thing.
Sunday was mostly a damp squib with the exception of the man who will almost certainly be this year’s big new Malian name in the west. Bassekou Kouyaté plays the ngoni, a small gourd with a piece of dowel sticking out and three strings. This rather humble instrument is somehow coaxed by the genius of Bassekou into producing a shower of notes not unlike the effect of its 21 string distant relative the kora. A few weeks earlier I had seen him do it close up at the Festival in the Desert but no matter how many times you watch it, the sound and the instrument don’t add up. The crowd were just as excited as I was.
At a pretty hefty €100 entrance for non Malians plus the higher prices for accommodation in Segou during the festival, it is not a bargain option even if you happen to be in the country. If the organisers though can keep the artistic level as high as it was this year but sort out the security issues, then I would recommend it to anyone. Next year the organisers have assured me a professional security firm will be called in to handle this aspect and they apologise profusely.
Read our account of the festival in 2005 or visit Flykr to see the festival in pictures
To find out more about the festival, go to the festival website