I have always been a fan of Malian music – especially those Malian musicians who are internationally known, such as Ali Farka-Toure, Salif Keita and Amadou & Mariam.  For this reason, I had been counting down the days until the 8th annual Festival Sur le Niger for quite some time!

In mid-February, I, along with about 180 other volunteers, made my way to Segou for the festival.  I didn’t attend the festival last year, but had heard that it was incredibly well coordinated and featured some of the biggest names in Malian music, along with musicians from other parts of the world.

On the first day of the festival, it was clear to see that the reports I had heard were spot-on.  I have to admit that I’m no music festival expert, but it did seem that the event was very well organized, the grounds were kept clean and the concert venues were on par with what I would expect from a concert venue in the United States. 

The main stage literally floated on the Niger river and, each night during the evening performance, I could be found on the sandy beach right in front of the stage.  The “standing room” area of was the best place to see and the only place good for dancing.  And, what good is listening to fantastic Malian music if you can’t dance?

You can see more about the festival on its Web site, but it would take far too long for me to talk about all of the musicians that I saw play during the festival.  Instead, I’ll just write here about those who I enjoyed the most.

Heather Maxwell – This American musician (hence the less-than-Malian name) once served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, during which time she wrote many songs in Bambara.  During her performance she sang several songs in English and French, but the crowd really loved the songs that she sang in their native tongue.  The most interesting thing about the songs that she sang, were the themes – healthy drinking water and vaccines (can’t you tell that she was a Peace Corps volunteer)! 

The Malians loved her music, which incorporated their local language, several traditional musical instruments and the voice of a Malian woman – she has mastered the Malian style of singing.  We all loved the fact that one of our own was representing Peace Corps Mali and the United States on the main stage.

I’ve heard that Heather is in Bamako working on a PhD and will likely be playing at some venues here in the coming months.  I hope to be able to get out and support her a couple of times during my last few months in country.

Salif Keita – Salif Keita was the headliner of the festival and his performance, late on Saturday evening, was fantastic.  Salif Keita is not only one of the most popular Malian musicians of all time, he is also considered one of the most influential African musicians of all time.  There are several characteristics about Keita that set him apart.  First, he is an albino – a minority in Mali that is often ridiculed and cast aside in society.  Keita is also a descendent of the leader of the Malian empire and, therefore, of the “noble” Malian ethnicity.  Because he does not bear the last name of the griot ethnicity, his pursuing a musical career goes against his traditional role in society.

Despite all of these barriers, Salif Keita has risen to the top of his game and is a delight to see in concert.  Due to his international reputation, I have a feeling that I will have the opportunity to see him again during a future US tour, and I can’t wait! 

Rokia Traore – Despite having the worst last name (Traore’s are my joking cousins), Rokia is phenomenal.  Her performance was far more laid back and bluesy than most of the other performers at the festival, but she absolutely mesmerized the audience.  Both she and her music are beautiful. 

Rokia was born in Kolokani, a town that is about 40 km from my site.  She is also from the noble ethnic group, so her singing falls outside the norm for the Malian caste system.  Another unique characteristic of her music is that she plays the guitar.  I’ve only seen one other Malian woman play the guitar – a young women at the Segou music festival, likely hoping to follow in the footsteps of Rokia Traore.  She has won many awards for her music and her most recent project was writing the music for the 2011 Toni Morrison play, Desdemona.

I know that she tours in the States, so you should check her out.  I hope that I have an opportunity to see her again in a smaller venue.  I can only imagine how powerful her music would be in a crowd of say 100 rather than 2,000.

One thing is for sure – the Festival Sur le Niger proves that Malians know music.

Since the festival, I often find myself walking through market and hearing one of the artists I saw in Segou blasting from a radio or the speaker of a cell phone.  It automatically takes me back to those nights spent dancing on the riverbank and brings a smile to my face.  I have a feeling that when I listen to Malian music after I return to the States, it will have a similar effect – the power of music is fantastic.

Of all of the cultural experiences I have had during my time in Peace Corps, I think that the festival ranks among one of the most wonderful.  Good friends, good music, good street food.  In Mali, it doesn’t get much better than that.

For more on Malian music, check out this article that ran in the Washington Post in late 2011 about the Malian music scene.

I’ve also posted pictures from the festival here.

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