For a while, it was touch and go whether the first Festival Acoustik Bamako (FAB) would take place. After terrorists attacked the Radisson Hotel in November, the Malian government declared a state of emergency, which is still in effect. Putting on a four-day event with international guests was always going to be a challenge. But the mantra of FAB, and Bamako at large, seemed to be “life must go on”, and life in Mali – despite what jihadists and fundamentalists might think – means singing, dancing and playing music. So FAB went ahead with more guards (particularly when the First Lady attended), in closed venues and with liberal use of body scanners.
It was a chance to show off Mali’s rich musical tradition – it is home to some of the biggest names in world music, including Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré – but also its dynamism and modernity. It was the first truly international concert held in Bamako for years. And this, according to Igu Diarra, the director of Medina, a local gallery, was important for Malians. “Some of my artists haven’t wanted to come to Mali recently, or couldn’t get insurance. When we see people are ready to come, it’s a sign that things are getting better.”
Tony Allen, a former drummer for Fela Kuti, flew in from Paris with his band. Damon Albarn, who is behind Africa Express, a project which encourages collaborations between Western and west African musicians, arrived with an entourage of more than a dozen, as well as a cello, violin and oversized lute. He was visibly moved at the beginning of his set: “Mali transformed my life when I came here in 2001 and I’ve never really been the same musically since.” He played songs written for his bands, Blur and Gorillaz, as well as more recent material like “The Marvellous Dream” from his opera “Dr Dee” – a song, as he explained on stage, about a 16th-century English magician. The audience seemed slightly bemused, particularly by the change in tempo, but, in a style typical of Malian hospitality, clapped enthusiastically.
The real revelations of the festival were the Songhoy Blues (pictured), who play a mixture of rock and rhythm and blues with a distinctly Malian flavour. They aren’t that well known in their country. Discovered and supported by Albarn in 2013, they have been touring internationally since. Their appearance was symbolic: in 2012 they were forced to leave Timbuktu because of the imposition of sharia law. Their performance seemed to mark a moment of unity in a fractured country, which still maintains a force of 12,000 UN peacekeepers. But in the end, as soon as their front man started strutting and grinding with one of the dancers, symbolism went out of the window.
It was the Malian musicians who really powered the shows. Nahawa Doumbia, little known outside the country except by world-music specialists, had such an energetic beat, piercing voice and captivating stage presence that not even her backing dancer could upstage her, even though he could wrap his legs around his neck and smack his bottom in time to the music while wearing a shiny pink suit.
One of the driving forces behind FAB was Toumani Diabaté, a Grammy-award winner who plays the kora, a traditional instrument made from a gourd and 21 strings. He performed alongside his 24-year-old son, Sidiki, who has his own career as West Africa’s version of Justin Bieber. Toumani’s brother, Mamadou, and his wife Safi electrified the audience with a rendition of their latest tune dominating the airwaves. Judging by the props, it’s something to do with lollipops. And on the last night the whole clan turned up with an impressive line-up of seven koras, a feat rarely attempted. Perhaps wisely: one kora sounds much better than seven.
Toumani Diabate had also invited the South African musician Derek Gripper who arranges kora music for classical guitar. He explained Toumani’s significance: “He showed people there’s more to the kora than traditional folk music and presented it in a way that’s comparable to the Western classical canon. He’s known for being a great innovator and his first album was the first solo kora album with no singing ever recorded.” Gripper is more used to performing in hushed institutions like Carnegie Hall in New York and King’s Place in London (where he plays this June). Here the audience clapped excitedly as soon as he began to play.
Unusually, it was an official who captured the atmosphere and the point of the festival best. The minister for culture and tourism, N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo, said “We don’t have the sea here. We don’t have diamonds in Mali. We don’t have oil, but what we do have is the music. And the vivre ensemble.” And she made the importance of the festival clear: “If you want to kill a country, then go ahead and destroy what they see as their culture.” The festival was boisterous proof of life.