A musician's dream come true
I believe I was twenty-two when I first discovered the music of Mali, specifically that of Salif Keita. I can remember it was a love affair at first listen. The album Mouffou played endlessly on my speakers for some months, followed by an obsession with collecting older albums and discovering many artists I had never listened to before, such greats as Ali Farka Toure, Habib Koite, Youssou N'Dour (from Senegal), Toumani Dioubate, Amadou and Miriam, Africando, and many more. It was this love for the intricacies and warmth of the Malian music that led me to create my own Afro-Latin collective, Jarimba. And some six years later, I got the chance to visit this mecca of West African Music and see the music, the dancing, and the people living in the relaxed Malian way.
Segou is a beautiful city nestled on the Niger River, the second largest city in Mali, and crowded with tourists in this festival time.
It's one in the afternoon by the time my bus pulls into the Bani gare just outside of central Segou. Not that I am much aware of time, after seven weeks of studying and traveling in West Africa. I have come to accept that everything will happen eventually and there is no point in rushing. Never once do I see anyone running, as though they were late for work or to catch a bus. A truly laid-back culture exists here which I am just fine with. After some bartering with a a cab driver who thinks I am a tubaboo, which I undeniably am, but less of one than the average tourist, I arrange transport to the house I am staying at. It's the home stay of a Peace Corps worker who I met through a fellow traveler. A simple dwelling on the other side of town with space for me to set up my tent outside. After getting settled, my host suggests we take a trip into town to see the sights before the festival starts tomorrow.
We walk down the dirt side road by his house to the main thoroughfare which has one of the most ingenious methods of public transport. Motor cycles, which are the preferred method of transportation here in West Africa, pulling covered carts that can seat six comfortably, but will more likely hold eight people and at least one baby and some containers full of goods for the market. Our Moto cab took us on a breezy ride into town, stopping to pick up and drop off passengers along the way. We get off in the middle of town and go for lunch in one of Segou's finest restuarants, a little shack on a side road, called The Shack, and run by a former chef of one of the big hotels in town. I have never tasted fish so good. Capitaine brochettes grilled to perfection with mustard sauce and a side of aloco (grilled plantain). After four days in the dogon eating very simple meals of rice and sauce or spaghetti, this went down very well. Feeling refreshed, I get a tour of the festival site and a trip to Segou's pottery exhibition. If only transporting such delicate and beautiful objects were possible, I would have bought some plates and bowls to take home. Similar to the mountains in the Dogon, the pottery here is a rich red and earthy tone with simple designs that are soft and pleasing to the eye.
Festival day one
The stage for the evening's events is a barge situated on the Niger River, perhaps some ten yards from the shore. The sound system and lighting for the festival are top-notch and comparable to any big budget festival in Canada that I've attended. The sound on the second smaller stage set up on the river bank some distance away admittedly had some small problems, typical to most festivals, but the evening's concerts were run smoothly and professionally.
Tea and Silver - a meeting with the Tuareg people
It is impossible to walk along the streets near the festival grounds without getting approached by a Tuareg nomad dressed in the beautiful blue robes of his people offering to show you his handcrafted silver jewellery. While this could get annoying to some, I found that if I took the time to look and respect the craftsmanship even if I had no money to buy, they will appreciate the gesture. After all, there is always time in this timeless place of sunshine.
One afternoon I got approached by a Tuareg man named Mohammed who invited me to rest from the sun in the shade of his tent and drink tea while I looked at his goods. Having no other plan for the moment and the sun being in its full midday heat, I readily agreed in my limited French. Through hand gestures and broken french and english, I learned about the craft as we drank tea. He explained the symbolism of certain etchings in the silver, the camels, tents, and stars. That this bracelet or ring was for men and this for women. When I explained that I also was an artist, a musician, his colleague brought out the three-stringed ngoni common to the Tuareg and I did my best to play a simple rhythm on this unfamiliar instrument. The bittersweet green tea that they drink here is brought to readiness through an elaborate ceremony that involves first boiling the water and then pouring it into the cups, then pouring the tea back in, then back and forth any number of times until the tea maitre deems it's ready for the next step. Sugar is added to one cup and tea poured in, then this mixture is passed back and forth between two cups, tasted, then put back into the pot. Perhaps more sugar is added, as necessary. Then when ready the tea is poured most elegantly into small ornate glasses, not much bigger than a shot glass. The teapot itself holds enough tea for about four or five of these little glasses.
So after playing music, drinking tea and relaxing from the sun, I purchased one silver bracelet, thanked my host for his hospitality and continued on my way to the next little adventure ahead.
Travellers from Switzerland
In the next stall down the road, I came across the opportunity to jam on kora, balafons and djembe. Happy as always to play, I readily jumped in and duly impressed the artisans. Instantly one was sent to get me a proper balafon which I played while another fellow played Djembe. We had a good jam, then of course they tried to make a sale. I explained that while I would love to buy loads of instruments, my baggage was already complete and my budget also finished. They understood and after some discussion in my limited French I made it clear that I would be happy to just play more music with them. This happened many times throughout the festival and I later met two brothers from Switzerland who were part of this stall, they had hitchhiked all the way to Mali from Switzerland and now met these folks who had taken them in. Amazing, really. These two young men were artisans themselves and had been learning the craft of instrument making from their hosts. Truly laid back people all, just going with the flow of the day. I spent quite a pleasant night listening to their stories and playing music.
Beach Concert.. Mali style
One thing I really love about the people in Mali is they know how to have fun and they love to dance. The festival grounds got packed as the time for the evening concert rolled in. I had gotten their early with friends I met who were also here for the festival. We had picked a good spot on the beach. The ground sloped down ampitheatre style with seating in chairs and bleachers at the top. At the bottom their was a short stretch of sand leading into the Niger River. The lineup for the first night was impressive and the show was also free so the crowds packed in as the first band started to play. There was a group from Morocco with dancing and singing, all the while clapping the traditional bell of North Africa, similar in a way to a castanet but much bigger and more metallic sounding. Following them was Ami Wassidie, a famous singer from the North of Mali. With her performance was a ballet of beautiful movement such as I have never seen before. The Tuareg dancers move as if blown lightly by an invisible breeze, effortlessly with such flowing, unhurried movements. I felt in a trance just watching them. Like watching Tai Chi in a dance form, or the gentle lapping of waves, or the sand being blown in little swirls by the wind.
The closing act of the night was Vieux Farka Touré and the crowd went wild for his fiery guitar playing. The well-loved son of one of Mali's greats and making a distinct name for himself on his own terms, his music filled the air as I danced in the crowd, pulled along by the energy of the people around me. A memorable night to say the least, lit by the stars above and the Niger river spreading out around the stage.