by Alison Hird
Article published on the 2010-01-30 Latest update 2010-01-30 16:33 TU
For the sixth year running, the Malian city of Ségou prepares to host leading world music artists from the region for its Festival sur le Niger. Built around a floating stage, the four-day event will host the likes of Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, Tinariwen, Nahawa Doumbia and Atongo Zimba. That line-up is hard to rival in the African subcontinent.
More than anything, however, this festival on Africa's third longest river is an attempt to revive the former capital of a Bambara kingdom that glittered in the 19th century,
Founded as a kingdom by Kaladian Coulibaly 158 years ago, Ségou has become a sadly dilapidated town riddled with unemployment. It is the capital of the fourth administrative region of Mali, but the proud culture it once displayed has been buried in poverty and indifference.
This year the festival opens with a forum on 2 February on the challenges of putting Malian culture at the heart of good governance. It will also host an international exhibit on the theme of water, and festival goers are also invited to explore West African handicrafts at a trade fair alongside the stages.
But organisers are concerned that the global recession could see a drop in attendance. They have already been hit by the withdrawal by major sponsors like Mali Airways.
Malam Mamane Barka from Niger sighs with envy at the very existence of such state-supported - if inadequately funded - festivals. A nomad of the Toubou tribe, Barka is the world’s only remaining master of the biram, a pirogue-shaped stringed instrument traditionally played by the Boudouma fishing nomads living on the border of Lake Tchad.
The biram is a sacred instrument, and many of the songs sing about the life of the ancestor of the Boudouma tribe, Kargila.
Along with percussionist partner Omar, Barka produces an engaging form of desert blues and has released his first album on the Introducing World Music Network label - quite an achievement, considering the instrument is struggling to survive.
“Young men don’t want to play traditional instruments, they prefer to play guitar, piano and saxophone,” he says. And the government is doing nothing to reverse the trend he adds.
After performing at the Womex festival in Copenhagen and Womad in the UK in 2009, Barka is hoping producers, managers and others who care about music will help him keep the biram alive.
Salif Keita will be taking the stage at the Festival sur le Niger on 6 February. Ever the perfectionist, he’s guaranteed to deliver a star act.
“The public are paying” he says. “You can’t serve up crap or always the same thing”.
And there are plenty of new things on his latest album, La difference, where the king of manding swing put his golden voice to the service of albinos and the environment: two causes he’s often defended in interviews, but never so openly in his music.
In the title track (also to be released in English) Keita proclaims: “I’m Black/My skin is white. And I like this It’s difference that makes it beautiful/I’m white/My blood is black/And I love this”.
Albinos continue to be murdered and mutilated in sacrificial ceremonies, the result of ignorance due to high illiteracy levels, says Keita.
“People don’t understand it’s due to de-pigmentation, a lack of melanin,” he says.
The foundation he set up in 2001 to fight discrimination is bearing some fruit. Albinos are now coming together as a collective force rather than staying hidden says Keita and the foundation works a lot with youngsters.
“Our main target is to make children envy albinos not spit on them,” he says.
La difference also aims to raise awareness on other social issues, such as waning democracy in Africa with a harder-hitting version of his classic Folon from 1995.
“The song was written at an important turning point in Mali’s history with the overthrow of Moussa Traoré’s dictatorship,” he says. “The song will always be very special to me.”
Keita also feels increasingly strongly about the fragility of the planet, and he attended the recent UN climate change summit in Copenhagen.
While his song Ekolo d’Amour is actually a declaration of unconditional love to his guitar, San Ka Na talks specifically about the advancing desert.
“It’s dangerous. We have to sound the alarm,” he says.
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