In early 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north of Mali and imposed sharia law. Jihadists smashed guitars, burned studios and threatened to kill musicians. Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south of Mali or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.
With the Festival in the Desert out of commission, the Festival on the Niger in Ségou — a southern city never occupied by the jihadists — has become the best place in the world to hear live Malian music. The desert’s loss has been the river’s gain.
Banks of the River: Field Report from Festival Sur le Niger 2015
edited from Tom Pryor (afropop.org):
I traded New York’s deep freeze for a chance to see some of Mali’s brightest stars—including Amadou and Mariam, Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré—perform live on the balmy banks of the Niger River.
The occasion was Mali’s Festival Sur le Niger, an annual, five-day celebration of music and culture that transforms the dusty, laid-back river town of Ségou into a buzzing regional arts hub. Now in its 11th year, the festival has grown into one of the largest live music events in West Africa, attracting an estimated audience of over 35,000 people, as well as some of the biggest names in Malian music today.
The superb 20+ piece traditional L’Ensemble Instrumental du Mali brought the full weight and majesty of the Malian classical repertoire to bear. Founded in 1961, just a year after Mali’s independence, the ensemble only tours outside of Mali occasionally, so seeing these masters of the kora, balafon, ngoni, percussion, kamel ngoni and other traditional instruments performing live in their own country was worth the price of admission alone.
By Saturday, the festival was pulling out the big guns: a triple attack of Bassekou Kouyaté, Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangaré, supported by hot new acts and old festival favorites.
Fatoumata Diawara’s set was a bit of a nail-biter, her first solo appearance in Mali. She’s based in Europe and better-known there than at home. But her wassoulou-inflected style and commanding stage presence were solid enough to win over the crowd. N’goni master Bassekou Kouyaté followed with a gorgeous set of traditional sounds that had the audience on their feet the whole time. And when Diawara returned to the stage to join Kouyaté for encores, she cemented her position as a memorable festival favorite.
Khaira Arby, a half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as “the Nightingale of the North,” had fled when the jihadists took over Timbuktu in April 2012. Al Qaeda militants trashed her guitars and recording studio and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her. At this year’s festival, in a sequin-studded green gown and a tiara of gold coins, rows of silver bracelets jangling on her arms, she swept back and forth across the stage, gesticulating grandly, her voice booming as she sang in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language.
By the time headliner Oumou Sangaré finally took the stage to close out the festival, it was nearly 2:30 am, and the crowd was clearly the worse for wear. But Sangaré is a force to be reckoned with, and she would not be denied. The veteran wassoulou singer brought things back to life with the sheer power of her voice and a truncated, but powerful set of favorites old and new. Again the crowd sang along with every syllable.
It was one of those magical moments that can only happen on a singer’s home turf. Never mind that she was visiting from Bamako—this audience belonged to her. And it reminded every tired festival-goer why it’s always worth the trouble to see African artists under African skies.