Tuesday 14th to Sunday 19th February 2012
Our drive to Segou was pretty smooth and uneventful. We arrived in the late afternoon and set about getting our festival bracelets and establishing our camp. Since it was Valentine’s day, Luke and I took the opportunity to have a romantic night to ourselves. We took a stroll into the centre of town and ate at Le d’Esplanade. We sat in the cool of the river breeze on the balcony overlooking the water and could hear the sounds of the festival warming up. The restaurant was famed for it’s pizza but it wasn’t available when we were there. Instead we discovered the most delicious burgers we have had for some time. After dinner we wandered into the festival grounds. They didn’t seem to be checking bracelets yet and lots of people milled around the stages, bars, and artisanal stalls. We soaked up the vibe before getting a moto-taxi (like a big tuk tuk) back to camp.
The next day we were pleased to see tents popping up fast in Motel Savane’s courtyard. Soon Bluebelle was tightly surrounded by a sea of grey and black domes, the vast majority of which belonged to people from the U.S. Peace Corps. We met some wonderful Peace Corps volunteers and were inspired and impressed to hear about their work with the villages. Each volunteer is placed for two years alone in a remote village. They are given a hut, a local contact to help them settle in, a bicycle, a mobile, and a local salary. Beyond this the rest is up to them. They become fluent in the local language and help the village with local needs, like improving their access to fresh water, helping them market local produce, or improving farming techniques. These projects and making a change in the villages take time, patience, and excellent people skills on the part of the volunteers. Truly amazing. They were also a fun bunch of people and it really made our festival experience getting to know them and soaking up the music together.
The festival opened late on Wednesday evening with a long ceremony introducing everyone who was anyone, splattered with tiny tasters of music. The main stage bobbed on the river whilst we all crowded on to the rough cement which sloped down to the water. It was worth the long wait (things happen on African time here) and then sitting through the formalities to see Neba Solo perform. The sounds of their balafon together with the synchronised fancy footwork of their dancers was a delight for our eyes and ears. When they performed again the next day on a smaller stage alongside the river, their sound was full-bodied and energetic. The dancers moved down in front of the stage in a circle of bare earth surrounded by hundreds of happy bodies. As their songs whipped our spirits we couldn’t stop our feet from moving and we got up to dance in the middle with them along with a bunch of our new Peace Corps friends.
The next four days of the festival delivered a chilled vibe, wonderful sounds, plenty of laughs and introduced us to some excellent African musicians. Among many other splendid moments, our highlights were Rokia Traore`, a petite French-Malian with a powerful voice. Kar Kar, with his soulful guitar and drummer tapping complex rhythms on a simple kalabash. The famed albino, Salif Keita, drawing hoards of excited people who sang along to each of his tunes. And his supple dancer with her spray on jeans who treated us to the best batty-shaking of the festival. The enormous dancer who stripped off his shirt to shake his many rolls in tune to the crowd’s great delight. The lively sounds of Abdoulaye Diabate that formed a circle of dancers in the crowd behind us and crossed all language barriers as we each took turns dancing wildly in the centre. Impressive crowd surfing by Lucas, one of our Peace Corps friends. The boundless Venezuelan energy of Pibo Marquez. Heather Maxwell, the ex-Mali Peace Corps volunteer who welded a Cora and sang in fluent Bambara. The smooth electric Kenyan stylings of Sauti Soul. And of course the chilled afternoon sounds of beautiful Broda Diabate and her backing band. All of this on the picturesque backdrop of the Niger River.
One afternoon we wandered the south bank of the Niger River looking for a little girl called Pinto for our friend Liz, who we met in Nouakchott. Liz was enamoured by Pinto when she stayed with Pinto’s family at their little guest-house in Segou. Pinto was a little girl of eight or nine who did much of the household work but got little attention from her busy parents. Liz gave us a little bag of trinkets to gift to Pinto. The afternoon air was warm and heavy as we combed up and down the river front looking for their guest-house. We met plenty of helpful locals, including one guy who took Luke on his motorbike to where he thought it might be. Unfortunately we were unable to find the guest-house and gathered that it had since closed. Despite the disappointment at not being able to pass on Liz’s presents it was an interesting afternoon seeing life on the river. Huge trees shaded the riverbank, lush green edible plants sprouted in fenced gardens along the waterfront, women washed clothes, children splashed, goats nibbled, and men sought refuge from the heat of the day brewing tea slowly in the shade. Pirogues moved silently along the surface of the Niger and others bobbed along the banks. When we wandered back to the festival for the start of the afternoon’s music we found some ice-cream to cool us down before haggling with some stall holders over beautiful handmade wares.
Sunday afternoon we took a boat trip along the Niger River to Kalabougou, a village famed for their pottery. It was relaxing on the water and fascinating to see life unfolding along the riverbank. At Kalabougou our guide showed us through several family compounds. He explained how each family makes their own particular style of pot. We saw the store room with all the fired-pots ready for sale to neighbouring villages. We met one potter as she circled her clay creation, winding round and around the pot until it was tall and smooth and exactly like the others she had created that morning. Finally, we watched how the women pile straw and branches on top of their rows of raw pots and then set the pyres ablaze. The heat coming off the piles of pots was huge, though still the women darted back and forth topping up the fires with more wood. On the way back to the festival we lay atop the woven straw roof of the boat, almost napping as we glided along the water. The setting sun created some gorgeous colours as it shimmered on the water and made silhouettes of us against the bright sky. It was the perfect end to our time in Segou.