Monday, March 12, 2007

Festival sur le Niger

Right, so I am always a little delayed with bringing you all up-to-date on what I’ve been up to – sorry. I can’t remember what I wrote in the post before “Transport” (when I put up all those pictures of my January training in Bamako, Festival sur le Niger, etc) so I hope I am not apologizing again since I think I may have done something of the sort in that last post. I had written a nice little description of the festival to go along with those photos but when I went to post my brilliant story and photos, something happened and the whole post was lost. I was a little dismayed to say the least and since I’d already set aside a nice little folder with all my shrunken-down photos for the blog, I just uploaded that and was done with it. As anyone knows who has lost a great masterpiece on their computer – it is hard to pick up again and write something since it will never quite compare to the original. Hopefully my frustrations with that are gone and I will be able to compose another masterpiece albeit less detailed since it is now a month further on and so much has occurred in the meantime. Since I write these descriptions off-line, I can’t check and see what I wrote last time and of course since it is always so long in-between – essentially, sorry if I am redundant.

The Festival sur le Niger in Segou ( is the biggest event of the year in my region of Mali and arguably the biggest in the country – at least bigger in size compared to the more widely known Festival in the Desert ( I haven’t heard any numbers since right after the festival, but original estimates were over 10,000 – a big number for a little known country in the heart of West Africa – especially when you realize this is only the festival’s third year of existence. It is held on the first weekend of February, this year the 1st to the 4th, with a huge art fair, traditional dance performances, and concerts from Mali’s best artists. The biggest component of the festival is of course the music since Mali is well established as Africa’s best music producing country (I don’t know the exact source, but I think it was an article in Vanity Fair a little while back where they depicted the worlds 25 biggest and influential music artists with something like 8 of the world total coming from Mali – if someone could find that article and post it in a comment to this article that would be great). Anyhow, the ‘wow’ factor of the festival is that the stage is actually a small barge floating on the huge Niger River flowing on the Northern edge of Segou. Festivalgoers sit on the banks of the river to dance and listen to the music. Since the festival is really still in its infancy, there is lots of room for improvement and is growing exponentially every year. Talking with people who attended last year, they can’t believe the huge amount of development and big strides of improvement the festival attained this year. Hopefully, this clears up most of the questions you might have had after looking at the photos I posted a month back…

Since it is such a huge event and since Segou is so centrally located, lots of volunteers come down for the festival. At the 2006 festival, they were able to easily make hotel reservations in December 2005. This time, however, when people tried at the beginning of October 2006, all the hotels said they’d been booked for months. This left my house and other volunteers here in Segou as the only option. The initial picture seemed like we were going to be inundated with volunteers with something like 40-50 people to be split amongst the three volunteers in the city – Lark, Kathy and myself. Then, with Lark unwilling to cooperate or help out in any way, Kathy and I were looking at splitting everyone between the two of us. I’ll try not to dwell on it much, but Lark has one of the top three nicest and largest volunteer houses in all of Mali, if not the nicest and her refusal to be a team player was absolutely innerving. Needless to say, it put Kathy and I in a difficult position trying to house all our teammates. Quite frankly, we were stressing a lot over how exactly everything was going to work out. Making matters even more difficult, for almost the entire month before the festival, we were at training in Bamako meaning it was almost impossible to do any organizing from there. To cut a long story short, eventually, everything did work itself out: not as many people ended up coming, after some cancellations a few people were able to find hotels, Miguel another volunteer on the outskirts of Segou took a few people and I was able to find a Malian a few blocks away where people could pay to sleep on their roof. In the end, everything was fine and we all had a great festival – just a little stressful leading up to it. In Mali, there is a say in regards to transport, that “you can always fit one more,” and this extended to housing as well. We were confident everything would be fine but were hoping to have things more planned out and not left to the last minute… next year I suppose will be much of the same with only a little experience to let us relax a bit. Of course, anyone wanting to visit for next year will be welcome to stay at my place – there is always room for one more.

With Kathy working with artisans and me working with tourism, we were both able to get free passes to the festival in the official guise of working it. Since we both came so late in the game, there was little we could be involved on before the festival leaving us with little specific to work on during the festival (we tried but were unable to get involved prior to the festival as much was already done). This meant we were able to fully enjoy the festival and approached our roles as active observers. In essence, we took the standpoint that simply attending the festival and observing how everything went on from a festivalgoer’s point of view, we would be better equipped to more involved for the following years festival. In addition to our own observations, we both tried to talk to as many people as possible to get a sense of their opinions on the festival – both people attending and working. What I came up with was a twelve page report outlining everything such as security, logistics, audio/visual, ticketing/sales, artisans, hotels/lodging, sponsors/advertising, publicity/press, food and beverage, staffing, etc. During the festival, I took extensive notes and complied everything together into my report. As I was just away for another three weeks following the festival, I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss my observations with the festival organizers but hope to do so soon.

Of the four days of the festival, only the last three have music on the main stage and of those only the first two have the really big names. So Friday and Saturday nights were huge! I don’t know if you can get a sense of the crowd from my pictures but there was a terrific atmosphere with lots of energy. Down in front, a flat beach area became a dance floor with only about 20 feet of water separating the crowd from the stage. My favorite artist of the festival would have to be Habib Koite – excellent guitar playing and great rhythm. I suggest checking him out (Habib probably is a top second after my favorite Salif Kieta who performed at the festival last year).

All in all the festival was a lot of fun and hopefully next year I will have the opportunity to work on improving and help it become a truly international music festival. I would like to write more but have to run off and do some things since today is market day. After writing my ‘transport’ post, I realized that there are lots of things that are now becoming normal to me that you might find interesting. Please, ask me questions on anything you want to know more about. I’m sure there are lots of things that are so regular for me now but I never got a chance to write about them for one reason or another but might fascinate you – so please, ask some questions! I’ll try and address as many as I can.

A little note: I quietly passed the 7 month mark recently and have thus been out of the US and away from home for the longest time in my life. I am well adjusted to my life over here as Djine Moussa Doumbia – what everyone knows me as since western names are too difficult for them to pronounce or remember. Anyhow, I’m dragging on… I hope to have two more posts up about the rest of my trip by the end of the week on WAIST and FESPACO so stay tuned!


NIGER1.COM said...

Mali news

Martha said...

Wow, what an adventure to get to Dakar and back. Yes, I'm very interested in what seems "normal" to you now.
Love, Mum

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