Photography by Simon Broughton and Fanta Diarra
Simon Broughton joins a crowd of 25,000 to enjoy the Festival on the Niger in Segou, Mali
Surprisingly Fatoumata Diawara’s (pictured) appearance on Saturday at the Festival on the Niger was her first solo performance in Mali. Before the show she was nervous that, as she lives in France, people wouldn’t know her music and might not like it. She needn’t have worried. Fatoumata is elegant and dynamic on stage, spinning like a dervish towards the end of her set.
With an audience of over 25,000 people, the Festival on the Niger is the biggest music festival in West Africa. The main stage is actually a pontoon on the Niger itself and the audience is packed on the bank. This year’s festival included several Songlines Music Award winners: Fatoumata Diawara, Amadou & Mariam, and Bassekou Kouyaté, playing in his home town. Concluding the festival was Oumou Sangare with Fatoumata back on stage as one of the calabash-tossing backing singers. Oumou is a huge star in Mali and kept a packed crowd, who knew all her songs, partying till 4am.
As well as the thrill of seeing the big names on their home turf – or river – I was pleased to discover Safi Diabaté, a magnificent singer married to Toumani’s brother Mamdou, who played sublime kora flourishes around her vocals. I was hugely impressed by the Ensemble Regional de Segou, a venerable traditional group of 20 musicians including koras, balafon and drums (pictured above). A group like this wouldn’t be able to tour so can only be here. And I was surprised to find myself enjoying Penzy (pronounced Benji), a rapper who has kora, tama (talking drum) and dancing girls on stage.
Segou is a pleasant, leafy city of about half a million people. It’s become a centre of arts and crafts, partly thanks to the festival, now in its 11th year. “The purpose of the festival is to create social, economic and cultural development in Segou,” says festival director Mamou Daffe. There’s now an excellent recording studio – Studio Kôrè – with recordings in progress while I was there.
Segou is a relaxing and fascinating place to visit. In a pirogue or pinnase you can access villages inhabited by Bozo fishermen, pottery makers and Segou Koro (Old Segou) where there are wonderful mud-brick mosques dating back to when it was the centre of the Bamana Empire from 1640. The official FCO travel advice is still against “all but essential travel” in southern Mali (including Segou). But they admit they have to err on the over-cautious and admit that if you don’t do anything stupid it’s perfectly safe.
The Festival on the Niger also played host to the Festival of the Desert in Exile and its Cultural Caravan for Peace. The Caravan began in Southern Morocco at the Taragalte Festival in M’Hamid, the gateway to the Sahara. Then there were concerts in Segou and three other places in Mali and it will culminate in two big concerts in Bamako, the Malian capital, on February 20 and 21.
The highlight of the Caravan concert was as band called Malikanw (Voices of Mali), put together by Manny Ansar of the Festival in the Desert. It features prominent musicians from six of Mali’s ethnic groups from Kayes to Kidal. Best known is probably singer and guitarist Samba Touré (who is Songhai) and the group also includes guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi (Touareg), guitarist Petit Gouro (Dogon), singer Sadio Sidibé (Fulani), fiddler Zoumana Tereta (Bamana) and singer Cheick Sissoko (Mande). It’s obviously a cultural statement, but musically they’re strong and would certainly be popular in Europe on tour [Pic]. They certainly went down well in Segou with ebullient dancing breaking out, once the official Minister for Reconciliation had left. “I think they are popular,” says Festival in the Desert organiser Manny Ansar, “because everyone can see themselves in this group.”