Festival sur le Niger in Ségou
Champion of the local scene
Gathering 30,000 festival-goers over five days, the Festival sur le Niger, which has just run from 14 to 19 February, is a popular Malian event that places the town of Ségou on the country’s cultural map and puts the focus on local music.
On Saturday 18 February, the final night of the Festival sur le Niger, even before the first notes sounded out, the show was already in full swing in the audience. The embroidered boubous, fitted suits, evening dresses and immaculate bazin brocade defied the red dust of Ségou and emphasised the spectators’ breathtaking elegance. The audience attending this 100% Malian evening, including musicians like Salif Keita, Rokia Traoré and Habib Koite, came from all round the Ségou region, as well as Mopti and Bamako.
The Festival sur le Niger has given Ségou a fresh kickstart. Back in the 1970s, the “city of balanzan” was a central feature on Mali’s cultural map thanks to Super Biton, the local band turned national orchestra.
Yet, as the secretary of the Festival’s foundation, Attaher Maïga, points out, “From 1990, the band went into decline, and a sad lethargy took hold of culture. Nothing happened here any more and Ségou became just a tourist stopover between Bamako and Dogon, Mopti and Timbuktu.”
In a country where cultural activities took the form of biennales until the early nineties, setting up a festival might have been perceived as an idea from abroad – yet from the start, the Fondation sur le Niger did all it could to use the project to bring about Ségou’s cultural rejuvenation, starting with promoting local music.
"We based the festival on something called maâya entrepreneurship, i.e. everything we do has to be based on consensus. Without the community’s agreement, nothing can happen. Our initiative has to involve as many people as possible, so we try to focus on our cultural plus points,” continues Attaher Maïga.
Members of the Super Biton band, who’d been playing independently in bars round town, got back together for the Festival in 2006, and now they kick off the event each year. As if to pay tribute to the band that marked Ségou’s heyday, every afternoon the small Biton stage invites local talents to come and perform.
The bands Kôré and Balanzan, and the troupe Pawari receive support from the Fondation sur le Niger and the Kôré cultural centre that opened in February 2011. Located on the outskirts of town, the centre’s attractive red adobe buildings provide a place for young groups to rehearse and even record. The foundation has produced four albums by the town’s top groups, including the first disc by Pawari, a traditional troupe comprising young boho musicians.
Another band being talked about in Ségou is Kôré, the Fondation sur le Niger’s house band. Less than a year ago, its leader, “Médecin”, was asked by the festival’s director, Mamou Dafé, to form a group made up of the best young musicians in Ségou. At 37, “Médecin” is one of the most talented guitarists in town and accompanies Mama Cissoko, Super Biton’s soloist. “In the band, we don’t just follow in the path of our elders, we interweave it,” he explains. “I really like bossa nova, which I blend with Mandinka rhythms.” All of these musicians are under thirty and play regularly in the many bars round town, like Le Fever in the Médine neighbourhood.
The young people’s favourite band is Balanzan, led by Ablo Diarra, son of Papa Gaoussou Diarra from the ubiquitous Super Biton. The balanzan, Ségou’s emblem, is a tree that grows green leaves during the dry season, and is reputed to possess magical properties.
Thirty-four-year-old Diarra is a respected musician with a following. His voice is sounding rough after performing with the band in a restaurant until the small hours, then singing from seven to eleven the next morning in a health centre to raise public awareness about the polio vaccine. Like Super Biton’s musicians before him, Diarra goes off into the bush to record old singers with his mobile phone and uses them as inspiration to compose and write his own songs, updated to reflect young people’s lives.
Balanzan plays the Bambara rhythms of Ségou but adds a modern touch with its special effects pedal on the ngoni, lending the band an unusual sound. Their second album, arranged by the “warrior” Cheikh Tidiane Seck, is currently being put together. It’s due out in March this year, in the heart of the dry season, just as the balanzans of Ségou turn green.