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Festival Stories

5 Feb

Segou third day, we float up the Niger to the Mangala Camara stage. The opening act starts with regional Bobo music, traditional music from western Mali, where belafon (similar to xylophone) and tam tam drum (gourd with skin) fill the air. I sit next to Abdoulaye, a Malian who works for the festival, and I ask him the meaning of the songs. The first one, he says, is about fishing. I begin to see how the dancers emulate the movements of fishermen, and the dance starts to have more clarity. The men strum on a long drum called a Bongolo and use sticks and hands to drum out the sound. They play their drums with a kind of solemn concentration- very different from the usual enthusiasm of a conga player. Then a beautifully elegant woman called Mama Djoulo enters the stage, “she is not a griot, but an artist.” Abdoulaye says. He informs me that griots are passed down through family lineage and that they sing for money, as opposed to artists who sing for the love of the art. Before only griots were allowed to sing, but now artists are accepted and encounter hardly any resistance. Mama Djoulo sings the “real” story of Issa, a barren woman who wanted a child. She tries for 10 years, but nothing changes, then she seeks the help of a marabout and delivers a child. Next Babenya the talented group from Burkina Faso enter the stage. They are promising young talent with great energy. Give them another few years and they will be West Africas next sensation. They sing of the joy of being invited to the festival, and of cause and effect. Next comes Adama Yolomba with his painted kamel n’goni, red green and yellow. He mixes electric guitar and traditional instruments. His rebellious lyrics advise people to open their eyes or else they will encounter problems, then about guruma, which means stinginess, and how it destroys relationships and communities. Finally he sings about the beauty of Mali, the crowd moves into the arena and groove on the sand. The night sets in, and we move to the main stage to see the famous Toumani Djabate. His calm demeanor camouflages his actual control over the show, similar to an orchestra conductor, he brings out the best of his musicians. The music is fantastic, the drumming is excellent, and the kora sounds are sharp and harmonizing. There is something divine and elevating about his music. Sad to see him go, Ismael Lu has a hard act to follow. His music is mellow, but maybe a little too soft for this evening. He plays his famous song “Africa” and the crowd responds. Finally the Madame Oumou Sangare enters and the excitement explodes. She is accompanied by two graceful dancers, who keep it lively. I wish Abdoulaye were here to explain what she sings, but am content with just hearing her soothing voice. The crowds dance, front row stands knee deep in the Niger river,- it is one big party.


Segou Festival

5 Feb

This is the second night in Segou. The festivals red and yellow lights reflect rainbow like ribbons on the Niger’s surface, as the wind blows the amazing voice of Kasse Mady Diabate, from one bank to another. He is performing on his own after stepping out of the shadow of Toumani Diabate. In a land where singers are passed down through family lineage, it is refreshing to know talent is recognized and singers can move up in the world. Next the gifted Ms. Bako Dagnon, sings her traditional Malian tunes. Then the local musician Bassekou Kouyate (won the BBC 2008 world music award) enthralls with an outstanding performance of the ngroni; accompanied by three other ngroni musicians the combining sound is enchanting. Then the Guinean Diva, Sayon Camara captivates with her powerful melodious voice. Her rhythmic sounds and back up dancers entertain and add to her stage charisma. The tunes range from Guinean griot, to salsa combinations, spiced up with the legendary Guinean djembe. Her bewitching voice reaches across the stands and to the hearts – the crowd loves her and respond with a wave of lively dancing. The night comes to a close as the lights dim off the Niger shore. As I exit, I bump into a Danish music journalist who wants to invite Ms. Camera to a festival in Denmark. There is hope. Lights dim – lights glow, this is the way at festivals.

Festival Sur Le Niger – Segou

4 Feb

Tonight the Malian skies are lit up with more than the stars, this evening on the banks of the Niger, West Africa’s most talented converge to illuminate the night. As the sun sets over the wind blown waters, the Super Biton of Segou open the celebration to a very enthusiastic crowd. They begin with a tropical salsa rhythm and then move to more traditional Malian tunes. (The cultural ties between Cubans and Malians goes far back). Then Neba Solo fills the air with the sounds of the Belafon, and Djembe, accompanied by two energetic male dancers who combine African, salsa, hip hop and break dancing steps, all in one. The dancers stir the crowd, as spectators scream and rise to their feet clapping in joy. As the evening descends into the deep night the Moroccan Gnawas strum their hypnotic rhythms. The sound of the castanets is drowned by the intense drumming, the men move back and forth, and the dance begins to looses its synchronicity as they step into a collective trance. Then the Tuareg strum out the sounds of the desert with their electric guitars; dancers bodies move in slow spiraling elegant motions, arms and hands floating in a wave-like form. Finally Vieux Farka mesmerizes with the desert blues made famous by his father. His sound are promising and set the tone for the days to follow.


27 Jan

Van—no, not the boxy vehicle we drag children or drum-sets around in, but the city cupped by the Zagros mountains and resting on the side of the great Lake Van. Van is the city center of Kurdish culture. Hidden in the eastern part of Turkey unknown to most tourists–unknown even to most Turks – it beckons. The beauty of its setting gave it the title “Pearl of the East” even in antiquity. Now a town of about half a million, it is today often imagined to be as conservative politically and culturally as, say, Erzurum, about 240 km  to the northwest. In fact, visitors are surprised by Van’s modernity and relative openness. Strolling though the city streets, one cannot help but notice the throngs of people walking about—women with shopping bags in hand or pushing strollers, men proudly wearing their hats, women displaying their hair or in scarves. In Van, one is meant to see and be seen, and the city exudes tolerance. The immaculate cobblestone streets display the cleanliness of its people, and the sidewalks are repeatedly swept throughout the day; restaurants follow suit. Famous for its breakfast culture, even in the late morning Van offers plenty of opportunities for eating. It is easy to find a spot and sample the local delicious honey with buffalo cream (kaymak), hot flat bread, and tea or cay (chai). Add to that feta cheese seasoned with thyme, hard boiled eggs, olives, and peppers, and that is a true Kurdish breakfast. The Seval Cahlate Salonu on Yeshil street is a favorite. Later in the day, a chat with the locals might open up several topics of conversation – Kurdish sovereignty, free press, and the future of the Kurdish people in Turkey. The new government has been listening to Kurdish complaints, and last year opened up the only Kurdish TV station. But the Kurdish station which broadcasts from Brussels is still a favorite.

Van is a dynamic but ancient place, and its long history dates back to the Urartians (c. 900 BC). The remains of an Urartian castle are still to be found on a hill in the southern part of the city overlooking the ruins of a town occupied continuously from its founding to the 20th century—a span of some three thousand years. A chronicle of the city would have to mention, at the least, Alexander the Great, the Armenian Kingdom, the Romans, the Sassanids, the Byzantines, the Seljucks and finally the Ottomans and Turks. Ancient Van was, however, destroyed by wars and invasions from 1915 – 1920. The devastation was so extreme that only a few church walls and two minarets remain standing amidst the rubble.  Still, a stroll through the ancient city rewards the imagination with a sense of how life must have been.

New Van was built 5 km to the north of the ancient city, and is as modern as most other Turkish cities. The locals know how to have a good time, and many remind their visitors that beer and wine were created in this area, and drink may have something to do with their openness. Night falls and the music strums out of every other building; Turkish and Kurdish songs are in the air. In the bars couples sit on one side, and single men and women on another. Still, they all mingle once the music has moved them to dance. The night lasts long in Van.

A traveler in eastern Turkey or the Middle east generally cannot help but ponder the long struggle and divide between the East and the West, but at least in progressive, open Van, the East does not really seem so “Other,” and the West no longer so reassuring.

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