Against All Odds, Pride of Segou, Pride of Mali: The Festival on the Niger River

FestivalonNiger-2014The Festival on the Niger River, 10th Anniversary Edition Celebration

Each evening, high in the sky, a thin silver cup-shaped new moon seemed to smile down upon the festivities.


There are many reasons why the Festival on the Niger River’s 10th Anniversary Edition, February 5–9, 2014, was such a symbolic and real success. Due to its many-faceted cultural initiatives over the past ten years, the Festival on the Niger River in Segou, Mali has had a most unusual impact. The region’s socioeconomic growth and development is one major reason. The prospect of national and inter-regional social cohesion is another. Two years ago during the 8th edition, one of the headlining stars, Rokia Traore, marveled in amazement, “Eight years ago, there was nothing here in Segou!” The magnitude of the annual event is dazzling.

Before the festival’s creation, Segou, a southern zone town with a current population close to 150,000 was but a quiet, beautiful spot. Within the larger local Segou region (over 2 million inhabitants), its economic profile includes artisanal crafts, markets, fishing, cattle herding, and small scale farming. It was known, however above all, as the first road stop en route to Timbuktu. Its 17th–18th century history as the small but powerful capital of the Bambara (or Bamana) Kingdom, whose fascinating intrigues and military feats, written about in Maryse Conde’s gripping novel, Segu, seemed all but forgotten.


Mamou Daffe - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mamou Daffe – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Yet through the innovative cultural entrepreneurship by the festival’s founder and president, Mamou Daffe, Segou has now become known as the venue for a superb West African festival. Known as ‘the man who put Segou on the map’, Mr. Daffe’s vibrant festival attracted an estimated ten thousand daily, of international, regional, and local world music fans, officials, scholars, visual artists, media, and arts and crafts buyers this past February.

The 235 kilometer dusty road, lined with distant cliffs, ancient baobab trees and small villages, between Mali’s capital Bamako and Segou is now being reconstructed to an asphalt two-lane highway that will speed up driving time considerably to about 2 ½ hours in daylight. (That is, if you don’t wish to stop along the way for a delicious luncheon snack of freshly grilled kebabs.) The local economic planning council, CPEL Segou, presided over by Mr. Daffe, promotes well-documented and ample reasons to invest in regional projects in agribusiness and cultural tourism. Jobs are being created.

And perhaps most remarkable of all, the festival has assumed stewardship of the Niger River’s environmental health. The festival educates local communities about the vital necessity of keeping the waters clean and shore reforestation. Special days are designated where everyone including the children joins forces to sweep up debris along the shores.

Political Backdrop:

Mali’s recent history underwent a dramatic political coup crisis in March 2012 that triggered invasion of the north by Islamic extremists (AQMI, MUJAO) and was compounded by a rebel secessionist movement (MNLA), causing complete disruption of traditional values and life. Music was banned under twisted interpretation of the Koran by the extremists; musicians were threatened and fled to the south; musical instruments were crushed and broken. Human Rights were non-existent. The inhumanity of the extremists traumatized the entire country and shocked the international community. Hundreds of thousands living in the upper wing region on the butterfly-shaped national map from Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao fled to the south or refugee camps in neighboring countries. One needs to be aware of the fact that Mali is an immense country (about twice the size of Texas), where the northern desert landscapes are distinctly far removed from the more verdant southern region.

With the ongoing French Serval, Malian, and regional military operations to clean out extremists, some order is slowly beginning to return to the north. But this will take time. The northern zone is still not securitized. Much infrastructure and the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu
(tombs of Sufi saints) were destroyed by the extremists and will have to be reconstructed.

However, areas of the southern region remain within the country’s safe zone. One needs spend just a few days in the bustle and lively, upbeat atmosphere of Bamako. Or, stay several days in the restful environs of Segou itself to get a real sense of Mali’s potential. Of imminent interest, last fall, the country elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as their new president, known to be ‘a man of culture’.

It was against this political backdrop, in the spirit of current peace and reconciliation initiatives being forged in the north by Mali’s government, that Mamou Daffe and his team undertook the challenge to bring on the festival’s 10th edition. Their achievements noted below deserve all possible accolades and certainly, increased donor and sponsorship support, for they are true cultural heroes for Mali and the West African region. Throughout the festival, because of their dedicated work, the country sang and danced with renewed faith in the country with moving fervor.

Festival Programming:

What distinguished the complexity of the festival programming were the brilliant contrasts between the traditional and contemporary, reflected throughout the music and dance concerts over multiple stages, traditional performances and events, art exhibitions, and threading through the symposium dialogues. It was an intensive experience, a heady swirl of events pulsating from 9 a.m. to late in the night, sometimes until 3 a.m., over multiple venues and stages. The 2014 theme, Cultural Diversity and National Unity, underscored the vision among the festival organizers towards a strong, unified country at peace.


Nafi Diabate- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Nafi Diabate- Photo by Evangeline Kim


And although there seems to be a rupture with traditional values in parts of Africa in favor of Western cultural trappings, Mali’s Festival on the Niger River excels by its selective emphasis on preservation of what is of philosophical cultural value from the past.

For anyone wishing to learn more about the culture of West Africa’s original Mali Empire (c. 1230 to c. 1600), its inherited customs, values, and traditions, shared still today among several countries in the region, the festival serves as an advanced field course study: in West African history, ethnology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, the oral tradition and literature. Mali’s local diligent scientific expertise backing the festival’s celebratory and creative programming aspects defines and shapes its authenticity and power.

Concerts for Peace:

The Cultural Caravan for Peace concert during the first evening was a specially conceived event. Bursting with talent, the partnered traveling concert program was initiated by the Festival in the Desert (still in exile from Timbuktu), the Festival on the Niger River, and Morocco’s Taragalte Festival. A trans-Saharan Sahel project to promote peace, solidarity, and tolerance, its historical basis can be traced to early caravan routes between southern Morocco and Timbuktu.


Mariam Kone Band- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mariam Kone Band- Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Caravan for Peace fulfills a splendid role by reviving the caravan concept: the older tradition wherein different cultures became aware of each other through music, poetry, and lifestyles. Such intercultural exchanges could very well be a key to reconciliation between Mali’s north and south and stimuli to discover solutions to conflicts. The aptly titled evening, Night of Peace, presented a good mix of diverse music from the three regions: Khaira Arby, Mariam Kone, Amanar, Mali Kan, Generation Taragalte, Nafi Diabate, and Amy Wassidje. Judging from the elation, joy, and enthusiasm among the festival leaders from M’Hamid El Ghizlane, Timbuktu, and Segou, the representative musicians, and cheering, dancing international crowds, prospects for peace seem most promising.


Khaira Arby- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Khaira Arby- Photo by Evangeline Kim


Tuareg Dance
Tuareg Dance


Evening Concerts on the Niger River:

During the following evenings by the spectacular, main high-tech Da Monzon Stage on the river, thousands filled the stadium seating and the banks of the river. The official ceremonial opening of the festival featured the premiere of the remarkable opera ballet, Mawula written by Dr. Fode Moussa Sidibe.


Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim


With costumed choreography, accompanied by ancient hunters’ music, and screened background images of actual desert military operations in the north, the dance-theater piece is an allegorical history of the people’s recent resistance to the extremist invasion in the north. The re-imagined contemporary story re-cast from ancient mythology revolves around the symbolism of the sacred vulture, Mawula, and the power and valor of its first-born sons, the fierce donso-hunters. The latter, those who hold ‘the secrets of life and regeneration’, manage to lead the way and the will of the people to vanquish the degenerate forces of the Islamist extremists and reconciliation ensues.


Jacob Desvarieux - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Jacob Desvarieux – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Sekouba Bambino - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Sekouba Bambino – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mylmo - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mylmo – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Stelbee - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Stelbee – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Salif Keita - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Salif Keita – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Many of Mali’s most popular stars and groups, some rarely seen on international stages, appeared on the Da Monzon stage: Salif Keita, Super Biton, Neba Solo, Abdoulaye Diabate and Mylmo were major crowd-pleasers. Younger emerging talent such as the Kaladjoula Band and Madou & Safi Diabate were impressive. In the spirit of international exchange, Sekouba Bambino, Guinea’s Mande super star’s appearance was sheer wonder and joy. Bambino is a regional star I’d never seen live until this performance and it was well worth the wait.

Reggae-oriented Stelbee from Burkina Faso holds great promise with her style and sophistication. Upper Tunes from the Netherlands, a light jazz group in collaboration Mali’s acoustic traditional instrumentalists, Sahel Blues, added to the festival’s international appeal. Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux, a star adulated in Mali, made a cameo appearance. All in all, one left the banks of the Niger River each evening inspired, uplifted, and full of hope for the country.

Quai des Arts:

Overlooking the Niger River and the main Da Monzon stage, the Quai des Arts is the venue area for a multiplicity of activities. Above all, the annual fair of arts and crafts draws vendors from many parts of Mali and neighboring countries, and adjoins a permanent crafts marketplace. There were excellent quality textiles in bogolon and indigo and fashionable designs from the local ‘Boutique Smart’. Classic hand-woven white cotton Peul embroidered coverlets from Mopti, and the ubiquitous long swaths of colorful scarves that are de rigueur protection against dusty roads or desert sand were to be discovered among the several market stalls, mixed with leather goods, musical instruments, wood carvings, and ethnic jewelry.

On the Quai itself traditional and contemporary performances were held during the daytime. Traditional troupes from Segou’s local villages of Markala, Kirango, Banakoro, and Pelengana appeared with their sogow, the masks and giant puppet characters, often in the shapes and forms of animals. They are usually presented in the villages during ceremonial occasions and harvest seasons. Richly didactic in symbolic detail, they are part of the ritual celebration of life that form the lore and the mythology of Malian children through adulthood.

Visual Arts Exhibitions:

There were two contemporary art exhibitions of art that I managed to view. The first themed as Amour was a show of internationally recognized contemporary artists from Mali, Sweden, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, at the Galerie Kore on the Quai. There were finessed textile ‘paintings’ by Mali’s Abdoulaye Konate, whose gradations of color over expanses of dyed, clipped fringes of bazin (damask) cloth were surprisingly innovative. His large ‘canvas’, Mujao (pieces de conviction – parts of belief), was an artistic commentary on the inhumanity of Islamist extremists. Within the composition, exquisitely embroidered women’s dress material frames the harsh contrast of a black Salafist flag, and below, a string of bullets dangles over the blood-red lettering ‘MUJAO’.


Abdoulaye Konate, MUJAO - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Abdoulaye Konate, MUJAO – Photo by Evangeline Kim


In counterpoint dialogue with Konate, the Swedish sculptor, Katrine Helmersson, who usually works in bronze, explored volume, space, and mass with some of the black and red bazin textiles employed by Konate in two of his ‘canvases’. With suspended cordal formations demarcating space, her large damask pompoms floated above the floor or were gathered in composed, elegant profusion.


Katerine Helmersson Sculpture - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Katrine Helmersson Sculpture – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Malian sculptor, Amahiguere Dolo, who has a profound understanding of organic, natural materials, and especially the ‘spirit’ forces in wood, took gnarled found pieces of wood and coaxed forth hidden expressive movement and feeling. Burkina’s Siriki Ky, exhibited a small, charming, yet iconic sculpture in bronze finely wrought with a verdigris surface texture, Le roi et sa femme (The King and his Wife). Kofi Setordji, the Ghanaian painter and sculptor, showed perhaps one of the most enigmatic and mysterious painting structures, Je refuse d’être mis dans une boîte (I refuse to be put in a box). A natural earth pigment dyed into his canvas, created a subtle, glowing surface texture; the picture plane holds several pockets sewn onto the canvas ground, and within each, a tree twig.


Amahigeure Dolo with Ritual Mask – Collection National Museum of Mali - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Amahigeure Dolo with Ritual Mask – Collection National Museum of Mali – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Siriki Ky Sculpture - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Siriki Ky Sculpture – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Kofi Setordji and Painting - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Kofi Setordji and Painting – Photo by Evangeline Kim


In a strong one-woman exhibition in two large spaces, Pulsions, the Ivorian artist, Valerie Oka, explored many symbolic concepts that preoccupy her through mixed media paintings and installations. Meanings and implications, feelings and tensions, memory and immediacy, were in constant interplay, alluding to love and communication, desire and destructiveness, tenderness and violence. Her show was a study in the power of African women and the challenges they face today.


Valerie Oka and Painting - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Valerie Oka and Painting – Photo by Evangeline Kim

Kore Cultural Center, The Koredugaw Exhibit:

The Kore Cultural Center, built in 2011 by Mamou Daffe, is a multi-functional complex of buildings constructed in the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style. The Center houses a large conference hall, a state-of-the-art recording studio, an outdoor performance stage, the Kore Institut des Arts et Metiers – dedicated to arts and entrepreneurial training, and a museum exhibition space.

This year the center’s traditional arts exhibition gave focus to The Koredugaw – Insiders, Symbols of a Philosophy of Life in Mali. It was curated by the ethnologist, Dr. Salia Male, Director of Research and Deputy Managing Director with the National Museum of Mali in Bamako. At each festival one is bound to come across this ritual cult of colorfully and clownishly dressed group of men and women usually dancing in circle formation around the festival grounds or tumbling about on the river banks. They are unmistakable in appearance and energy. Sporting caps, sometimes regal, sometimes outlandish, and adorned with long necklaces of large red ‘rosary’ beans, their tunics are covered with all-manner of symbolic gris-gris shells, feathers, bird beaks, plastic bottles, and gourds.


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Kore Center’s museum exhibit was filled with photo portraits of several of the Koredugaw and examples of their ritual carved wood masks that represent various animals, signifiers of initiation classes – the latter, sourced from the National Museum of Mali’s collection. The exhibition implemented the center’s policy of enhancing the heritage of music, dance, masks and puppets through preservation of traditional values and and education.

In the excellent small exhibition catalogue, Dr. Male writes:

Restraint, dignity and decency are well linked values in Malian society but that the ritual clowns are allowed to break into the most sensitive areas such as gluttony, health, sexuality and childishness. The Koreduga doesn’t know shame (malo), a concept that can be translated into correction, decency, modesty. The apparently aberrant behavior of the Koredugaw has a cathartic virtue: they allow people to collect criticism and mockery, which, if made by another person, would be considered serious offenses. This form of humor is much deeper than it seems at first glance. This is not just a frivolous occupation: it is a vital form of creativity, which involves not only the game, but a powerful vision of the world at the source of the purity of human nature, which seems at times corrupted by culture; hence the opposition of Koredugaw’s practice to social norms.

The Symposium of Segou:

Some of the most illuminating and informative moments during the festival occurred during the morning symposium sessions. Impassioned observations and commentary from the audience participants animated the intercultural exchange between historians, anthropologists, sociologists, architects, philosophers, and novelists.

What I appreciated the most was the fact that each participant had prepared a clear thesis presentation, whether viable or not. There was no forum type ‘off-the-cuff’ superficial commentary. Nor were there any ‘famous’ personalities, for substance and content are critical to what is a truly effective symposium.

The concept theme, African Renaissance: Challenges and Perspectives during Mali’s post-crisis period gave focus to the interrelationships between culture and development throughout the continent as a principal consideration: a vast perspective, in view of the multitude of cultural identities in Mali and on the continent.


African Renaissance Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
African Renaissance Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


African Renaissance Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
African Renaissance Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The very notion of development became a bracing inquiry that the symposia explored and debated. Should development be defined merely by a country’s GDP – as interpreted by multilateral institutional statistical measures? Or by a country’s historical and cultural influence and strengths? How does one define ‘quality of life’? How do culture and development intersect today in Africa? Isn’t ‘success’, in the final analysis, a matter of opinion?

Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium

Ivorian professor of philosophy and well-known art critic, Yacouba Konate, moderated an ancillary discussion among artists, scholars, and professionals under the rubric RAP (Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles). Its theme: Creation, Factor of Development.


Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Among the symposium’s roster of notable speakers, Lazare Eloundou, architect and urban planner, the former head of UNESCO’s Africa Unit and the organization’s current representative in Mali, delivered a timely presentation. Entitled Cultures and Conflicts: Visions and Roles of UNESCO, Mr. Eloundou summarized the UNESCO culture sector’s ongoing activities throughout Mali, especially towards the safeguarding and reconstruction necessary in war-ravaged Timbuktu. Throughout Africa, he observed, a newer form of war threatens national stability, most recently in Mali, Libya, Egypt, and Central Africa. They are today victims of attacks on their respective cultural identities and heritages.

Christiane Kayser from Luxembourg, an independent consultant working in West and Central Africa and member of the private sector think tank, Mapinduzi Unit, offered pertinent perspectives in her presentation Identities and Governance: A Challenge for the African Renaissance. The substance of her talk is available at the following link to Mapinduzi Journal 3 in the introduction. This journal is an excellent collection of analytical essays by some of the leading thinkers in Africa, including Mamou Daffe himself, and Dr. Celestin Tagou, professor of political science and international relations.

The National Museum of Mali in Bamako:

After leaving Segou, one is well-advised to spend several hours in the National Museum of Mali in Bamako. It ranks among the world’s greatest cultural museums from an art critical standpoint. One gains invaluable insights into the country’s early history in the archaeology hall; a greater sense of the ritual cults in the magnificent Masterpieces of Ritual Arts exhibit; and finally, in the textile arts hall, there is breathtaking visual splendor with superb examples of ingenious dying techniques, fine weavings, and intricate embroideries. Glimpses of the latter two may be seen in Segou, but contemplative appreciation of them is fully afforded through a museum visit.


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


After a gracious welcome by Dr. Salia Male, I was delighted to view the museum exhibit halls with Dramane Diarra, Research Attaché with the museum. His gallery commentaries included illustrative Malian proverbs and reflected the depth and sophistication of the museum’s scholarship and its highly refined sense of aesthetics.

The festival’s bonds with the museum are becoming more and more strategic. The cultural tourism that the festival fulfills so well, clearly stimulates interest in deeper understandings of Mali’s history and culture for international scholars and students as part of its mission objectives. A visit to the the museum is a fitting way to celebrate the festival experience and highlights the rich research and vast knowledge base in the country’s culture sector.

Mamou Daffe’s ‘Maaya’ Vision:

As praiseworthy example, the Festival on the Niger River is featured as a role model In UNESCO’s 2013 Creative Economy Report, Widening Local Development Pathways under the Africa section, The introduction states:

UNESCO’s work over the years has demonstrated that when the creative sector becomes part of an overall development and growth strategy, it can contribute to the revitalization of the national economy where hybrid and dynamic economic and cultural exchanges occur and innovation is nurtured. But that is not all. Investing in culture and the creative sector as a driver of social development can also lead to results that contribute to the overall well-being of communities, individual self-esteem and quality of life, dialogue and cohesion. These results generated from fostering the cultural and creative industries may be harder to quantify, but are no less important.

The 10th edition of the Festival on the Niger River encompassed all the qualities of a great festival as a showcase for the diversity of arts in Mali; a local and regional meeting place for artistic and scientific dialogue, debate, and education; a force for regional socioeconomic development and national reconciliation; and a cultural gateway to the past, the present, and the future of the continent.

Mamou Daffe’s achievements as a cultural entrepreneur are founded upon his synthesis of traditional humanistic values with entrepreneurial goals and modern management principles. The underlying Malian principles are known as Maaya. He has written two recent groundbreaking books on the subject: Maaya Entrepreneurship (2012) and Maaya Entrepreneurship: A Management Tool for Cultural Event and Local Development (2013).

Maaya is an integral humanist concept concerning the relationship between the individual and the community. It is the core quality of being human, what makes us human. Through Maaya, people understand the importance of that relationship and learn how to act accordingly. The principles of Maaya are applicable to every aspect of life: work, leadership, politics, education, festivities, day-to-day life, art, science and anything else you can think of. Maaya emphasizes the unbreakable bond between individual and community and gives people a framework to hold on to, provides them with a ‘design for life.’ – Mamou Daffe, Maaya Entrepreneurship

This is far beyond theory or idealism. The evidence of its practicability lies in the festival’s success. The festival’s underlying founding concepts of Maaya and community-based entrepreneurship as management guidelines are pulling Segou out of a formerly languishing state towards a dynamic profile of socioeconomic growth and well-being. It may very well portend the future of the African Renaissance itself.

Author: Evangeline Kim


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