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Story Publication logo March 16, 2015

Along the Niger River, the Beat of the Sahel


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In 2012, Jihadists occupied two-thirds of Mali, creating the world's most dangerous terrorist...


Down by the Niger River last February, a Tuareg street performer was warming up the crowd. The evening concert at the Festival on the Niger was about to begin, and the promenade inside the concert grounds was filled with early arrivals. Dozens had gathered in a circle around the elderly nomad, who was draped in a blue robe and a black veil. Robe flying, the toothless dervish hurled himself to the ground, flipped and twirled with the loose-limbed dexterity of a teenager. Two Tuareg women, seated cross-legged on the ground, served as his musical backups: One beat a calabash with a plastic sandal, the other played a tapered wood-and-goatskin drum known as a tendé.

Just down the river, light and sound engineers were prepping the stage — a huge barge moored just off the bank — for the evening's main event, performances by bands from across the Sahel — Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

I had arrived in the Niger River town of Ségou two days earlier, after a rough four-hour drive on a decaying tarmac road from Bamako, the capital of Mali. The last time I had made this journey, in January 2013, I had shared the road with an armored French convoy, which was speeding to the front lines in Timbuktu to drive out the jihadists who had occupied the north. But now the country was quiet — more or less — and, after a year's hiatus because of the war, the Festival on the Niger was back in business. For four evenings during the first week of February, many of the country's best musicians performed before a crowd of thousands, including several hundred foreigners. The highlight was a final-night performance by Salif Keita, the golden-voiced singer who kicked off a Malian music boom, along with Ali Farka Touré, in the 1980s.

I've long been a Malian music aficionado, but I had only recently heard about this festival. Though it debuted in 2002, it was, until a few years ago, overshadowed by its rival, the Festival in the Desert, known as the "African Woodstock," set in the sand dunes 40 miles west of Timbuktu. Big-name Western performers — Robert Plant, Bono, Jimmy Buffett, Manu Chao — made a pilgrimage to the desert, playing alongside famous local bands such as Tinariwen. But in early 2012 an alliance of Tuareg separatists and jihadists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb occupied the north and imposed sharia law. Jihadists smashed guitars, burned studios and threatened to kill musicians. Half a million people, including many performers, fled to the south of Mali or to refugee camps in neighboring countries.

The French military intervention, known as Operation Serval, was largely successful, but it couldn't totally eradicate the rebel threat. Despite hope that the Festival in the Desert would return to the Sahara in January 2014, occasional rocket attacks, ambushes and kidnappings in the north made that impossible. The festival's promoters canceled it again for 2015.

With the Festival in the Desert out of commission, the Festival on the Niger in Ségou — a southern city never occupied by the jihadists — has become the best place in the world to hear live Malian music. The desert's loss has been the river's gain.

No doubt the festival will be greeted as a welcome reprieve from the specter of Ebola, which killed six people in Mali last fall after leaving thousands dead in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In mid-December the World Health Organization reported that the last confirmed Ebola patient in Mali had left the hospital, and the last person who had contact with someone with Ebola had been declared virus-free after the 21-day quarantine. The prospect of a major outbreak of the virus did worry promoters, but the festival should be moving ahead as scheduled from Feb. 4 to 8.

Last year, the director of the Festival on the Niger had decreed that the theme would be "cultural diversity and national unity." In keeping with that spirit, the festival opened with a concert by the Peace Caravan, a group of northern musicians, many of whom had performed at the Festival in the Desert and had been forced to flee for their lives.

That evening, I took a taxi through Ségou — a pleasantly dilapidated town of rutted streets, motor scooters, donkey carts and a few faded colonial-era villas — to a crumbling cultural center surrounding a postage-stamp concrete stage. A few hundred chairs had been set up in a dirt courtyard.

There was some grumbling from the Peace Caravan performers about being relegated to a second-class venue far from the barge. Some voiced the suspicion that the treatment reflected lingering resentment toward the Tuaregs, the Berber people whose latest uprising and alliance with Al Qaeda had torn apart the country. But a standing-room-only crowd — United Nations peacekeepers, Malian generals in camouflage uniforms and red berets, European and American tourists and locals — filled the modest concert space, and the complaints quickly faded.

Khaira Arby, a half-Tuareg, half-Arab diva known as "the Nightingale of the North," had fled when the jihadists took over Timbuktu in April 2012. Al Qaeda militants trashed her guitars and recording studio and threatened to cut out her tongue if they captured her. In a sequin-studded green gown and a tiara of gold coins, rows of silver bracelets jangling on her arms, she swept back and forth across the stage, gesticulating grandly, her voice booming as she sang in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language.

Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a Tuareg guitarist from Kidal, in Mali's far northeast, and his band, Amanar, followed Ms. Arby onto the stage. In August 2012, Mr. Kaedi had returned from a sojourn in the desert to find his house in flames. Jihadists had doused his guitars in gasoline and set them on fire, then left a message with his sister: "When Ahmed comes back tell him [that if] he plays music again, we will come back and cut off his fingers."

Amanar's music was stark and haunting: a few hypnotic guitar phrases, call-and-response vocals and fingerpicking guitar solos. The music evoked Carlos Santana, Mr. Touré and their Tuareg compatriots Tinariwen. After midnight, all the musicians gathered onstage for a jam session, joined by a hundred jubilant spectators.

During the daytime, the promoters arranged cultural events: art exhibitions, symposiums on Malian music. But I preferred to spend my days between concerts sleeping late, having a leisurely lunch in one of several terraced restaurants along the river and then, in the cooler part of the afternoon, wandering down footpaths along the Niger. Fishermen cast their nets from wooden pirogues, and farmers tilled the furrowed plots along the riverbank. The river, about half a mile wide here, has a rich history: It was from this bank that the French colonial army, led by Lt. Col. Eugéne Etienne Bonnier, set off in gunboats to conquer Timbuktu in December 1893 — only to be massacred by Tuareg warriors.

On the third evening of the festival, I made my way to the main concert venue by the river. Hawkers inside the grounds proffered silver jewelry, CDs, bamboo chairs and embroidered leather saddlebags. The aromas of frying fish, incense and gasoline wafted through the air. People sat in plastic chairs in front of makeshift restaurants, drinking bottles of Flag and Castel beer under a half moon. The muddy riverbank between the barge and the bleachers was still fairly empty, and I planted myself at the edge of the murky water. Then the lights came on and the M.C. took the stage, launching into a patter of Bambara, French and English.

"Is there anybody from the United States here? Do you speak English?" he asked. The crowd roared back. Though French is the lingua franca of Mali, the United States is popular, and English nowadays has the greater cachet here.

An all-female group called the Kaladjoula Band, seven singers and instrumentalists from southern Mali, got the crowd rocking, with lively harmonies and dance moves. Almost imperceptibly the crowd before the barge had swelled, pressing me on all sides.

The Malians shared the bill this evening with several non-Malian acts, reflecting the growing international flavor of the festival. Sékouba Bambino, from neighboring Guinea, draped in white silk, singing in a rich tenor, reminded me of Salif Keita, whose performance the following night I would have to miss because of a reporting assignment in the still-unstable north. Stelbee, a beautiful young woman from Burkina Faso in a matching yellow turban and floor-length gown, sang infectious melodies in a mix of Swahili, French and English.

Then Ms. Arby, the diva from Timbuktu, who had complained about being relegated to a second-class status on opening night, took the stage. Her complaints had won her an encore performance, this time on the barge before perhaps 8,000 people.

"I'm singing for the Tuaregs who never picked up arms against their country," she proclaimed to the crowd's roar of approval. It was a gesture of reconciliation, and a plea for unity, in a nation that had been torn apart by war and occupation. This Festival on the Niger offered perhaps the best indication that the country was regaining a degree of normality.

Exhausted after a long day and night in the tropical heat, I stole away from the concert at 1 a.m. and made my way back in a taxi to the hotel through Ségou's deserted streets. The music was still going strong.


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